Having waited months on a ruling, U.S. catfish farmers were pleased when the USDA recently agreed to inspect imported tra and basa from Asia. But the ailing catfish industry then learned that the Office of Budget and Management, citing concerns that such USDA inspections could spark a trade war with Vietnam, asked to extend the ruling deadline until later this year.

Ted McNulty, director of the aquaculture division at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, spoke with Delta Farm Press about the USDA/OMB actions, the Senate jobs bill and where the industry stands going into 2010. Among his comments:

On the Senate Finance Committee jobs bill and aquaculture…

“The first version (Baucus/Grassley) of the jobs bill would have provided $25 million for U.S. aquaculture.” With the introduction of an alternate bill by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid “that fell through but I know Sen. Blanche Lincoln (chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee), is continuing to work for that money to be in the jobs bill.”

(For more on the Senate jobs bill, see Ag-disaster package in limbo.)

“I spent yesterday (Feb. 17) with Senate Agriculture Committee staff. We were able to give them a good look at what aquaculture means to Arkansas. We toured the aquaculture program at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff and they got a lot of good information. We also met at Mike Freeze’s operation in Keo, Ark., and he explained what he was going through. They also met with fish farmers in Wilmot.”

(For more on Freeze, see Keo Farm specializes in fingerlings.)

How are things in the state’s catfish industry?

“Things are extremely difficult for our producers. High feed prices — because of the current prices for corn and soybeans that make up the feed — are still squeezing the farmers.

“Alongside that we’ve got cheap fish imports coming into the country that aren’t being inspected. We can’t raise prices in stores or restaurants because of the competition from those cheap imports.”

(For more, see Will USDA inspect aquaculture?.)

“Lately, feed prices have come down a bit. But they need to drop more before fish farmers can be profitable again.

“In 2010, I’m hopeful that feed prices will come down and farmers will get more money for their fish.”

On import inspections…

“One of the big issues we continue to have is with USDA/FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) inspections of the Asian fish imports. That’s something the U.S. aquaculture industry really needs.

“A final ruling defining ‘catfish’ was supposed to be completed last week. It turned out USDA defined it where it would include basa and tra (varieties of fish raised in Vietnam and China). That does give us some hope that this will turn out well for catfish producers.

“Now, though, OMB is holding the ruling up. That office has asked for a deadline extension. It doesn’t look like we’ll have inspections for some time.

“It was up to the USDA to determine, under the latest farm bill language, what fish would come under their inspections. The way they interpreted the farm bill is that basa and tra would be included in inspections.

“The snag is now with OMB and it’s difficult to find out anything from them. I don’t know they’ve provided any specifics for the delay.”

On acreage, feeding and the 2009 crop…

“Aquaculture acreage is down and 2009 feeding was down about 40 percent. Some of that was due to lost farmers, some was drying up some ponds, and some was farmers simply cutting back on how much they were feeding.

“In 2009, for the Aquaculture Grant Program, we had 101 catfish farms. That was down about 20 percent from 2007.

“Our acreage has gone from 40,000 to 25,000 in 2009. I wouldn’t be surprised, if something doesn’t come along to help the farmers, that we lose another 10,000 acres.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com