Much like livestock, the U.S. catfish industry is in a boom-or-bust cycle. Right now, there's a price upturn.
“Prices are around 85 cents per pound,” says Larry Dorman, Arkansas Extension fisheries specialist. “Some processors are even paying, or splitting, delivery costs. When that happens, it's a clear indication fish are short.”
But, if allowed, imported fish will fill the gap. Such imports — often illegally brought into the United States from Vietnam and, increasingly, China — are a threat to U.S. producers.
“Go back a decade or so, and we had rapid expansion in the industry. We were processing half a billion pounds of fish annually. Suddenly, we were 100 million pounds beyond what we were able to sell in past years.”
At the same time, basa (a type of farm-raised Vietnamese fish) began appearing on U.S. grocery store freezers. Basa forced the price of U.S. catfish down.
“When that happened, it was too risky for banks to loan farmers money. That's turned around somewhat.”
The catfish industry is in a five-year to 10-year cycle. Dorman says this can be charted from the 1970s.
“We'll have two or three years of depressed prices and then recover for four or five years. Then another couple years of depressed prices emerge.”
An example: U.S. producers couldn't “give fish away” in the early 1990s. The consumer was able to buy a cheap product and that spurred demand. By the mid-1990s, lots of pond construction was happening. Then, in 2000, there was an oversupply once again.
“We've generated good demand for catfish. Sometimes the cheaper product, like basa, fills a niche. But we don't want foreign competitors to fill that niche. We're at a distinct disadvantage against a state-controlled economy and a poor, captive workforce.”
U.S. farmers have spent “all kinds of hard-earned advertising money to build demand and (the Vietnamese and Chinese) ride in on U.S. farmers' coattails.”
American producers pony up $5 per ton of catfish to pay for advertising and promotion. That money, too often, creates a demand filled by basa.
“That's ridiculous. We're getting some benefit out of U.S. tariffs placed on (fish imports). Some of the tariffs are high. But, currently, there seem to be ways to get around labeling rules. Those exporting Vietnamese fish are able to get labels saying ‘Laos’ or ‘Cambodia’ or another country where tariffs don't apply. That's one angle the Vietnamese are using.”
In the age of global trade, Dorman says the U.S. catfish industry has unwillingly become entangled in other international trade issues.
“When the catfish industry first pursued an import tariff, rumors circulated that (executives from a major international corporation) called and said, ‘Hey, you guys are threatening our business.’ Multinational corporations are trying to open up foreign markets. By placing tariffs on basa, it makes these foreign trade reps mad and they won't let another product in. They retaliate. International trade is a web you can get tangled up in.”
What about the aquaculture situation in the Mid-South?
“I don't know everyone's bottom line. But, for the most part, the bleeding appears to have largely stopped.”
Two or three years ago, Dorman sat down with aquaculture industry folk — farmers, feed salesmen and others — and identified nearly 5,000 acres that had gone out of business in south Arkansas. Since then, several of those farms have been picked up by those looking to expand. Three hundred-acre to 400-acre farms have expanded to 500 to 800 acres.
“Most of the available acreage has been picked up — we've had a net loss of a couple of thousands acres. That's a lot better than we all thought it would be a couple of years ago.”
On the research side, there's a lot of interest in channel blue hybrids. The fish grow much quicker and seem hardier than their catfish “cousins.” There are still some spawning issues to work out, though.
“There are very few farms with blue cats, so to stock they have to be brought from the river. The female catfish can spawn from May through July. Sometimes the timing with breeding is an issue — when the females are ready, a ripe male is needed.”
Often, that means both fish have to be sacrificed. The male's testes have to be removed and the eggs must be stripped from the female.
“That doesn't kill the female, but it is a traumatic thing — she's probably good to go to the processing plant.
“Plus, when we cross these two, the viability is a bit low. That's probably true with any hybrid. So we're working on how best to get the breeding right.
“I know this: this produces a beautiful fish and everyone recognizes that. It has improved growth — anywhere from 10 to 20 percent faster. We also see some disease resistance. However, if we culture them long enough, I'm sure a disease will show up they're vulnerable to. But right now, they're quite resistant to what affects channel catfish.”
Another problem is the hybrid doesn't lend itself to a typical cropping system. You can't stock X number of fish in a pond, feed them to a certain point, pull the faster-growing ones, and leave the smaller ones to grow more.
“This fish doesn't lend itself to swimming through the seine — the head is rather small and the body is bigger than the channel catfish. That has to be worked out. A mechanical grader being developed at (the aquaculture program at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff) might be a solution.”
Regardless, these hybrids are very intriguing. “There are a few farms working on the blues. One large farm in southeast Arkansas is in on this, as is a farm in Alabama. Auburn University is working with farmers in Alabama on these fish — they're high on it.”