A sense of optimism among catfish producers was palpable for the first time in three years at the 2003 Fish Farming Trade Show in Greenville, Miss.

“The recovery may finally be in sight. There is no doubt that this is a pivotal year for the catfish industry for a lot of reasons, including market prices, and the anti-dumping litigation,” says Henry Gantz, president of The Catfish Institute in Belzoni, Miss.

Until 2002, catfish producers set record feeding rate records for several consecutive years, and catfish processors ran a record amount of fish through their facilities in 2000, 2001 and 2002. “We're burning the candle at both ends by feeding less and selling more, but we're getting where we need to be,” Gantz says.

Pond bank prices averaged slightly below 57 cents per pound in 2002, which was a sharp decrease from the 74-cent average growers were paid for catfish in January 2000.

While pond bank prices have steadily headed south in recent years, grocery store prices for catfish have stayed level, and have even increased in some instances. Retail prices over the past three years have gone up to an average of $4.12 per pound, according to The Catfish Institute.

“They took our troubles and made money, and that's their business,” Gantz says. “Not only have retail prices gone up, but so have the retail industry's margins on catfish.”

That's where the catfish industry got “beat over the head” with competition from Vietnamese fish. The competition gave retailers the leverage needed to set their purchase price for catfish. If the U.S. catfish industry refused to sell their product at a loss, retailers simply substituted that purchase with the cheaper Vietnamese basa fish.

A recent catfish industry survey found that 88 percent of consumers prefer to buy U.S. catfish, while 2 percent say they would prefer to buy Vietnamese fish, and 10 percent say they don't know the difference. In addition, 43 percent of consumers surveys expect to see catfish more often in restaurants, and 32 percent are more open to buying catfish than they were one year ago.

“The seafood market, in general, has had its ups and downs in recent years,” Gantz says. “We've been solid, with a slow but steady increase in per capita consumption of catfish.”

According to Gantz, catfish is currently the number four fish in the country, with tuna in the number one slot, followed by salmon and then Alaskan pollock. “We've got pollock dead in the crosshairs, and we're going to get them in 2005 and move to the number three spot overall. I also believe we are the number one filet in the country.”

Gantz adds, “Some very well-respected environmental groups have us at the top as the most environmentally friendly fish, including the Audubon Society and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.”

For it's part, The Catfish Institute is front-loading its 2003 advertising schedule to help increase catfish sales during the pre-Lent and Lent seasons, when frozen seafood sales are traditionally at their highest levels. “We want to sell as much catfish as possible to get these inventories down and prices up,” says Gantz.