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Catfish farming helps row farmers offset low prices

Catfish continues to be bright spot in state’s agriculture

INDIANOLA — With historically low prices for feed, catfish production continues to be one of the few bright spots in Mississippi agriculture despite the abnormally hot weather conditions and concerns about imports of Asian catfish.

Hugh Warren, executive vice president, Catfish Farmers of America, says catfish farming is still one of the few ag operations in the region with the capability of being a profitable enterprise. Particularly for row crop farmers who have diversified into catfish production, profits from catfish farming can help offset low prices for other commodities.

Although drought and heat have greatly affected many segments of Mississippi agriculture, catfish production has not suffered significantly.

“Catfish is a warm water fish, and for the most part the fish are continuing to eat and gain weight during the heat of summer,” Warren said.

Demand continues to be strong for the product and feed prices, which represent 50% of operating costs, are as low as has ever been seen. Prices range from $190 to $210 per ton of feed compared to a price of about $260 per ton four years ago.

Pond aeration is used to keep oxygen levels high to combat the heat. Normally it starts getting cooler at night this time of year, said Jim Steeby, area extension agent for aquaculture for the Delta, but with nighttime temperatures staying higher than normal, he likens it to a runner having to go another half mile at the end of the day. That makes it tough on both the fish and workers.

Water temperatures have ranged between 90 and 95 degrees recently with ideal temperatures about 10 degrees lower.

Catfish producers are also keeping a wary eye on increasing imports of Vietnamese catfish. Although the Vietnamese catfish haven’t yet commanded a large share of the market, the imports are a concern, particularly for the long term.

“Our farmers have contributed millions to market catfish to people who were not used to eating catfish,” Warren said. “The concern now is that these imported fish could come in and displace domestic catfish.”

It isn’t known for certain how many pounds of catfish are being imported because it could be labeled under different names. But indications are that the amount of imports has doubled over the past year. Since the catfish aren’t labeled by country of origin, there are concerns that U.S. consumers could be purchasing Vietnamese catfish believing they are purchasing U.S. farm-raised catfish.

“Anytime you have an imported product coming in, you don’t really know for sure what regulatory practices are involved,” Warren said. “Certainly we pride ourselves in having a quality product fed wholesome grain ration with vitamins and minerals. There is really no way of knowing what these other fish are being fed.”

Catfish growers are lobbying to require that imported fish are correctly labeled, and that the country of origin is indicated. Warren said when the public has a way of knowing this is an imported product, it could well make a big difference in its acceptance in the marketplace.

Steeby said the Vietnamese product is not the same species as the U.S. catfish. Current laws allow the imports to be labeled as catfish or under other names. Steeby agreed there is a need to label the product as imported in order for consumers to know what they are buying.

Catfish are the number one aquaculture product in the U.S. with about 600 million pounds of channel catfish processed in 1999. About 360 million pounds were grown in Mississippi.Another issue is a relatively new problem with the trematode parasite, which can infect catfish after being carried in by white pelicans. The problem was first seen in Louisiana three years ago and in southern areas came close to driving a couple of operations out of the business.

Steeby said Mississippi researchers are ahead of the game due to benefitting from what was learned in Louisiana. It is now known that only a brief visit by white pelicans can infect snails, which pass the parasite on to the fish. Just a few parasites can kill small fingerlings. With larger fish, Steeby said the parasites won’t necessary kill the fish, but can severely affect their appetites resulting in significant declines in productivity.

Only a half dozen ponds in the state experienced the problem in 1999. This year 50 to 60 ponds are affected.

Another significant development in the Mississippi catfish industry is the recent merger between Farm Fresh Catfish and Farmland Catfish Processing. The new company, which will be headquartered in Hollandale, is called Southern Farm Fresh Aquaculture LLC. The companies said the merger will help create greater market penetration and increased sales.

John Gentry, president of the new company, said the company is considering the potential to process species other than catfish in the future including other species of fish and fresh water shrimp.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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