RAYMOND — High consumer demand and lower input costs have Mississippi catfish farmers filling their ponds to the brim.
“Consumer demand has stayed pretty high, and that has farmers stocking at high rates, even though pond acreage is down by almost 8 percent from last year,” said Jimmy Avery, Extension aquaculture professor at the Mississippi State University Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville. “We are optimistic that consumers are still out there and demanding a U.S. farm-raised product.”
Producers experienced a good hatchery season that is just wrapping up, said Avery, who is also the director of the USDA Southern Regional Aquaculture Center at the Stoneville branch of the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
“Demand for fingerlings to stock ponds exceeded supply this year. This left many farmers unable to stock ponds at higher rates,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have good survival of this year’s fingerling crop, and farmers will be able to increase stocking rates in 2016.”
Another advantage for catfish producers this year is the cost of feed, which is down by about $120 per ton from 2014, Avery said. Producers are paying $350 to $380 per ton compared with the $470 to $500 per ton they were paying last year.
Ben Pentecost, a producer based in Doddsville, Mississippi, said this year’s feed prices are still higher than what farmers have paid historically, but they are quite an improvement from recent years.
“Feed is our biggest input cost and accounts for 55 to 60 percent of our total input costs,” said Pentecost, who is the immediate past president of the Catfish Farmers of America. “But the price of fish is still fairly good.”
That is a reflection of consumer demand, Avery said. The average price for catfish between January and April was $1.14 per pound.
“That is really good news,” Avery said “While it is down from the high in summer of 2014, fish price has been stable since November.”
Minimal issues with disease have kept production costs down.
“I’ve had more pressure from birds this year than anything else, and I’ve heard the same from other farmers,” Pentecost said. “The pelicans have gotten worse. I’ve not seen this many at one time in the 30 years I’ve been in the fish business. They come in by hundreds, and each of them can eat 3 to 4 pounds of fish per day.”
With an increased number of pelicans, farmers must keep an eye out for trematodes, a parasite carried by the birds that cause slow fish growth and susceptibility to disease. Although these parasites and the diseases they cause in fish are costly for farmers, they do not affect humans.
Mississippi leads the nation in total sales and the number of acres in catfish production. The state is followed by Alabama, Arkansas and Texas.
However, U.S. producers continue to battle competition from Vietnam and China, which export catfish or catfish-like products that are less expensive but not as closely monitored for food safety issues as U.S.-grown fish.
At this time, the industry is awaiting the final ruling that could move catfish inspection from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“That means catfish, including imports, will be inspected with the same scrutiny as beef, poultry and swine,” Avery said. “We feel it is important for consumers that imported fish be inspected with the same scrutiny as U.S.-grown catfish.”
Mississippi-raised catfish are available year round, and consumers should check the country-of-origin label on all fish and seafood products, Avery said. Mississippi restaurants indicate on their menus or in wall-mounted signs whether the catfish they serve are from the U.S. or other countries.
— By Susan Collins-Smith