Catfish is one of the leading fish agricultures in the United States, making up over 46 percent of the aquaculture production in America alone. Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama are the primary locations for commercial catfish production, with Mississippi holding more acreage in catfish production than the other states combined. Employing around 13,000 people, the catfish industry’s economic contribution is in the billions to the states. It is even the primary source of income for many counties in the southern states.
But a new report from USA Today shares that the catfish industry is taking a hit from outside forces. Cheaper Asian fish are driving down prices as the cost of feeding domestic fish is skyrocketing. Townsend Kyser is a third-generation catfish farmer in Alabama. As he told USA Today, "We want to compete on a level playing field; we feel like we can win on a level playing field. But the foreign fish is so much cheaper than what we can produce. But the market is the market. The cheap imports are competition, but they also deflate prices that the market can stand."
Experts point out that foreign catfish is so much cheaper largely due to low-cost labor and production standards not legal in the United States. Foreign fish averages a dollar a pound cheaper than domestic breeds. Catfish workers in the United States are paid minimum wage, which is far more than the earnings of foreign workers. Catfish feed in the United States is made of corn and soy, whose prices have also gone up in recent years. Further, higher standards for safe water, feed, and more make domestic production more expensive. All of this makes for a higher quality fish – but one than can’t compete with foreign prices.
Carole Engle is the director of the Aquaculture Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She points out that Asian catfish often contain high levels of toxic compounds and test positive for antibiotics that are banned in the United States. According to Engle, "There are serious food-safety issues associated with imported fish. In America, the wells that provide the water for catfish ponds are tested regularly. In Asia, fish are grown in races (channels) in rivers. The fish tend to take up what's in the water. There aren't those types of controls in other nations."
The Catfish Institute is pushing back by promoting a law that would require the country of origin to be labeled on catfish. Hopes are that consumers will turn to homegrown fish and perhaps turn the tide for the diminishing domestic market.
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