Mississippi’s catfish industry — battling high feed costs, low prices and foreign competition — is seeing many acres come out of production as producers fight to remain profitable.

In 2009, 15,000 acres of ponds went out of catfish production, and more are expected to leave production this year. Mississippi continues to lead the nation in catfish production and acreage, but the state’s current 65,000 acres is 43 percent short of its peak of 113,000 acres in 2002.

Jimmy Avery, aquaculture leader with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said shrinking profit margins have decreased the value of catfish ponds.

“If a catfish farmer can increase the overall value of his land holdings by diversifying their use, perhaps that farmer can continue to raise catfish on at least some portion of his land,” Avery said. “For the last six years, this industry has fought to keep ponds in production. Creating income from a source other than fish sales allows us to continue to farm.”

Jim Steeby, Extension aquaculture specialist located in Humphreys County, Miss., said current catfish prices are about the same as they were 20 years ago. Prices averaged 77 cents a pound for the last three years, but rose to 80 cents a pound by mid-May. Profits are marginal, at best, in this range.

“We’re getting the same price for the product as we were 20 years ago, but all the inputs have gone up,” Steeby said. “In addition to that, imported fish, such as tilapia and other catfish, are coming in at prices below what we’re getting.”

Steeby said feed costs made up 60 percent to 65 percent of the cost of production in recent years. About 10 years ago, feed costs were less than 50 percent of total production costs. Along with high feed prices are higher fuel and electricity costs.

“Early in 2007, feed prices were about $240 a ton, but feed prices reached $380 per ton in 2008 and were about $330 a ton in 2009,” Steeby said. “Although they have dropped to about $300 a ton this year, they still drive up the cost of production.”

In response, most national and state catfish producers have reduced their pond acreage.

“They’re scaling back,” Steeby said. “They have cut down on the amount of space they’re using to grow fish.”

Producers are waiting on the resolution of some trade issues that could provide a boost for the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry. Catfish and seafood are inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service, but producers want inspection to move to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All red meats are USDA inspected, but fish are not.

“We would like the definition of catfish to be fairly broad so all imported catfish will be covered under the USDA inspection process and would have to meet the same standards as our U.S. product,” Steeby said. “We’d like to see that definition be broad for safety reasons.”

Meanwhile, producers are still growing catfish. Spawning season got under way the first week of May after a cold winter, and Steeby said he expects a good hatchery season.

“We’ve gone through most fingerling supplies that were out there, and hatcheries are lined up to have a pretty good run this year,” Steeby said. “They haven’t hatched a lot of fish the last few years because there was a lot of carryover in the inventory, but that is mostly gone now.”

Producers feed catfish about once a week in the cold winter months, but feeding frequency increases with the water temperatures. Since late April, many producers have been back to the once-a-day feeding schedule they will follow through summer.