ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Catfish farmers continue to address production challenges as the industry works to reclaim markets lost to imported fish.
Jeremy Robbins, vice president of The Catfish Institute based in Jackson, said farmers have struggled in recent years with high feed prices, their No. 1 expense, while dealing with increased competition from imports.
“There is no denying the quality of our product. We have the safest, healthiest aquaculture product on the market,” he said. “With current market conditions, we are working with all segments of our industry to develop new and innovative tools and marketing initiatives to drive sales. We are also working with state lawmakers across the South to ensure that consumers are informed at the final point of sale about where their catfish is grown.”
Robbins said the industry has addressed foreign challenges by lobbying for country-of-origin labeling to ensure consumers are informed.
“Because of ongoing food safety concerns with imported catfish products, clear menu labeling has been one of The Catfish Institute’s primary focuses in recent years. Given the choice, we believe consumers prefer American-grown catfish. We are hopeful these efforts will eliminate confusion and perhaps avoid a potential bad customer experience due to mislabeling,” he said.
Robbins said to address high production costs, farmers are exploring different stocking densities, new pond layouts and oxygenation systems, and new ways to get feed costs down, such as using different catfish feed formulas.
Jimmy Avery, Extension professor at the MSU Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville and director of the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, said the sluggish economy, high soybean and corn prices, and a flood of cheap foreign fish continue to hurt the catfish industry.
“We have seen some improvement in fish prices in recent months, but what that means is that farmers are only losing 15 cents per pound instead of 25 cents,” he said.
Avery said U.S. farm-raised catfish were 90-95 cents per pound the first week of May compared to 80-85 cents per pound two months earlier. He said lower supplies finally may be helping prices. In early 2012, catfish were bringing about $1.25 per pound.
“The national industry is down from 182,000 acres of catfish ponds in 2003 to 83,000 acres now,” he said. “What has hurt us the most is feed costs. Feed prices were as high as $590 per ton for feed in 2012, compared to $250 per ton several years ago.”
An additional challenge this spring has been the persistent cool temperatures.
“Catfish growth is about six weeks behind this spring because when it’s cooler, fish don’t eat as much,” he said. “These conditions have also delayed the start of hatchery season. The good news is that cooler temperatures also reduce disease outbreaks.”
Avery said some producers are studying ways to redesign their ponds to increase production efficiency. One option gaining attention is to create a smaller containment area for the fish and a larger area for treating the water.
“This split-pond approach provides an algal growth basin of about 80 percent of the total area and a fish-holding area of the other 20 percent,” Avery said. “The two components are connected to allow circulation between the water-treatment area and the fish-holding area.”
Avery said hybrid catfish are usually stocked in these ponds because of their increased disease resistance and aggressive feeding behavior.
“The advantages of this system include more efficient aeration, ease of feeding and harvest, improved feed conversion, decreased predation, and greater fish production than traditional ponds,” he said. “The cost of converting traditional ponds into split-ponds is high, so transition to this new system will be slow.”
Avery said catfish producers always have looked for the most current recommendations to produce a quality product. The current economic challenges are just another factor to influence their management decisions.