Southerners appreciate the delicacy of a catfish dinner, but until recently, prices were no treat for catfish farmers.
“Right now, the price of catfish is about 85 cents per pound, which is a decent price for the producers,” says David Heikes, Extension fisheries specialist with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Aquaculture/Fisheries Center of Excellence.
“In the 1990s, there was such an abundance of catfish that it was a buyer's market. Now, because there are fewer catfish producers in the U.S., the seller has the advantage.”
One thing to give Arkansas producers pause is the influx of imported basa and tra from Vietnam. Basa and tra are types of fish raised on Vietnamese farms and may force prices down if grocers choose to carry these products when U.S. farm-raised catfish get scarce. Prices for imports are cheaper in part because they are raised in cages or flow-through ponds along the Mekong River, and wastes from these fish operations are discharged without treatment.
When the tide of imports started increasing about 1999, the development and expansion of catfish farms in Arkansas slowed because it was harder for farmers to get bank loans due to risk. While that situation has changed to a degree today, it's still a consideration for catfish producers in Arkansas.
In fact, almost 5,000 acres of catfish production in south Arkansas was out of business between 2000 and 2005. Today, many of those farms have been purchased by other catfish producers to expand their operations.
“The good news for producers is that within the catfish industry, we are at the peak of the five- to 10-year cycle,” says Heikes. “While prices were depressed for several years, prices have recovered for now.
“Catfish prices have fluctuated that way since the 1970s so producers have to ride out periods of low prices. The current strong demand for catfish will likely keep prices high in the short term, but increasing inventories of stocker-sized catfish will likely force the price of catfish down slightly as these fish reach market size.”
Even at today's slightly higher prices, farm-raised fish are still one of the most economical and nutritious choices for family meals in Arkansas.