By JACK WEATHERLY
The U.S. catfish industry has fought Asian exporters long and hard for years.
Now with President Donald Trump issuing an order in his first week in the White House to block America’s membership in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, another victory has been achieved, as the U.S. industry sees it.
“We just felt that the TPP would weaken [inspections of the imports],” said Roger Barlow, executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America and president of the Catfish Institute.
The free-trade pact would afford exporters the opportunity to challenge findings by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on chemicals banned in this country, Barlow said.
Vietnam is the biggest user of such chemicals, he said. Vietnam is one of the 12 countries that would be in the TPP. The U.S. industry has long argued that the southeast Asian nation also benefits from its communist government price supports.
“They [could] cry that the inspections are a trade barrier under the TPP rules,” Barlow said.
It remains to be seen if the trade group becomes a reality, with its biggest member withdrawing.
Dr. Jimmy Avery, aquaculture professor for the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said he did not think the pact would have had a major impact on the domestic catfish industry.
He also said the switchover from Food and Drug Administration inspection of seafood imports to the USDA has become “more and more effective” at detecting unacceptable imports.
USDA inspections, which started last year, account for only 10 percent of foreign imports thus far, he said. But they result in a lot more rejections than the FDA, which inspected only 2 percent of imports, had ever achieved, Avery said.
Yet, if the U.S. industry is to make a comeback, it finds itself unable to “switch gears” swiftly like row-crop farming, Avery said.
To reverse the shrinkage of pond acreage is a major, time-consuming expense, he said.
Returning ponds that had been filled in and used for crops cost $1,800 to $2,200 an acre, he said.
At the end of 2002, there were 184,900 acres in the top four states – Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, according to the USDA.
Mississippi led the top four with 110,000 acres.
As of July 22, 2016 the top states (Louisiana was not among the leaders) were farming 54,700 acres, with Mississippi leading with 35,000 acres.