With all eyes focused on the Mississippi River’s epic floodwaters, catfish producers contemplate its potential impact on their already stressed industry.

Jimmy Avery, aquaculture leader with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said if the river crests as high as predicted, several catfish farms in the south Delta, particularly those in Sharkey, Issaquena and Yazoo counties may be affected.

“There is a possibility that five or six catfish farms may have at least some of their levees topped by backwater flooding,” Avery said. “One processor in the area is planning to close due to projected floodwaters entering the facility.”

For those businesses, the losses could be costly.

“The production losses on these five or six farms could possibly reach $1.5 million to $3 million,” said John Michael Riley, agricultural economist with the MSU Extension Service. “If the backwater flooding is more severe than currently estimated, losses on catfish farms could be significantly higher.”

The average size of a Mississippi catfish farm was 211 acres in 2008, the last year of available data, although farms in the Delta are much larger than those in eastern Mississippi. The industry had $200 million in sales last year.

The Mississippi River and Midwest rain may impact the U.S. catfish industry as a whole.

“Generalized flooding in the area will also impact foodfish production because predicted road closures will interfere with feed delivery,” Avery said. “We are at the beginning of catfish spawning season in early May. If the flooding lasts as long as predicted, it may impede catfish hatchery operators’ ability to harvest eggs and stock fry ponds.

“Grain planting in the Midwest has been delayed, and any shortage in corn and soybeans could drive grain prices higher, in turn raising the cost of catfish feed,” he said.

In addition to this year’s production losses, some catfish producers in the Mississippi Delta may lose acres that will take years to recover as catfish stocked in the affected ponds escape, while rough fish such as carp or buffalo fish enter the ponds.

Since the 1970s, when suppliers of channel catfish moved from harvesting local rivers and lakes to producing catfish in ponds, producers have faced a variety of challenges. Skyrocketing feed costs and inexpensive imports have kept channel catfish profits low for several years. Consequently, thousands of acres of ponds have gone out of catfish production and into row crops or left idle.

Supply crunch

The U.S. catfish industry is in the midst of a supply crunch due to the reduction in acres dedicated to catfish ponds, Riley said.

“U.S. water acres have declined, on average, 10 percent over the past 5 years and a stark 22 percent from 2009 to 2010,” he said. “Mississippi accounts for 55 percent of the total U.S. channel catfish acres.”

As farmers sold out of the catfish business, there was a glut of fish on the market, which held the prices down, said Craig Tucker, director of MSU’s Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center.

“Those who remained in catfish farming were faced with a low price for their product and more cost for their feed due to high grain prices – they were in a real bind,” he said.

Once the glut was over, there was not enough fish to meet the demand of grocery stores and restaurants, which has not diminished. Consequently, prices paid for catfish rose to all-time highs.

“The producers who maintained their catfish production were finally seeing some profit, and now some have to deal with the flood,” Tucker said.

While the flooding is a cause for great concern among Delta catfish producers, part of the strength of Mississippi’s channel catfish industry is that ponds are scattered statewide.

“Farms that will have their levees overtopped have sold fish or moved fish to ponds outside the flood zone,” Avery said. “While 80 percent of Mississippi’s catfish ponds are in the Delta, less than 10 percent will be impacted by the flood, according to current backwater flooding predictions. However, if any of the backwater levees of the Yazoo River fail, catfish ponds in Humphreys County will be at risk as well.”