One predominantly Southeast agriculture industry, catfish production, has seen the devastating effects of rapid aquaculture production in the Vietnam.

For thousands of years fish were the dominant source of meat protein in Vietnam. The aquaculture industry there was manure-fed, with a small amount of grain to add protein.

Now, the aquaculture industry is grain-fed, technologically modern and growing every year — currently third in world production of cultured food fishes.

In contrast, the U.S. catfish industry started in west Alabama and east Mississippi in the late 1960s. The big challenge was to develop a taste for farm-raised catfish in the U.S., and grower funded organizations were highly successful in doing so.

In more recent years the Southeast catfish industry has fallen on hard times, primarily because of foreign imports and high grain prices, and that challenge does not appear to be going away any time soon.

Townsend Kyser is a third generation catfish farmer in Hale County in west Alabama. He says, “We want to compete on a level playing field, and we feel like we can win on a level playing field."

 "But the foreign fish is so much cheaper than what we can produce. The cheap imports are competition, but they also deflate prices that the market can’t stand," he adds.

When asked what impact the continued growth of the Vietnamese aquaculture industry in general and catfish production more specifically would have on U.S. farm-raised fish products, Bardole, admitted the U.S. industry would have to change dramatically to keep pace.

Worldwide the demand for aquaculture products has increased dramatically over the past decade, and at the same time the wild catch is going down every year.

Unlike the U.S. government, political leaders in Vietnam recognized this economic opportunity and have developed a 10-year plan for growth of their aquaculture industry.

In a five year period from 2005 until 2010 Vietnamese fish farmers increased production from 160,000 tons of fish to more than a half million tons. Bardole says as worldwide demand goes up, production in Vietnam is likely to continue to increase.

For U.S. grain farmers the use of soybean meal for fish production is only going to increase foreign demand for U.S. grown beans, he adds.

Tom Dorr, executive director of the U.S. Grains Council, says most people think China is driving the grain economy worldwide, and the Chinese do play a key role, but they are far from alone.

“By 2020 India will pass China and will have more than 600 million households in the middle class. Other countries like Vietnam are growing rapidly in both population and economic output, and there is still Japan — a long-time economic power in Asia,” Dorr says.

“How we as American producers take best advantage of these emerging economic markets is going to play a key role in shaping U.S. agriculture in the future,” he adds.

rroberson@farmpress.com