U.S. Catfish Industry Gearing Up For Fight Against Imports


The nation's catfish industry is gearing up for what may be a legal battle over the import of fish from Vietnam that producers say is netting up to 10 percent of their business.

Hugh Warren, executive vice president of Indianola-based Catfish Farmers of America, said prices are on the decline for U.S.-raised catfish and that Vietnamese fish is to blame.

U.S. Reps. Ronnie Shows and Bennie Thompson, both D-Miss., want the Bush administration to require country-of-origin labels of catfish, particularly that coming into the country from Vietnam. They said the Vietnamese package their catfish to imitate U.S. brands and logos.

Warren said growers are optimistic President Bush will support the new labeling. If Bush doesn't, Warren said the industry must look at other ways  including a lawsuit  to halt the price decline before domestic producers are hurt.

``We are not ready to concede that we cannot make some very positive steps toward resolving the labeling and naming issue,'' Warren said. ``We do have some legal options available to us in the event that we are unsuccessful in getting an agreement.''

Producers say as much as 1 million pounds of Vietnamese catfish is imported in the United States each month.

Catfish is big business in the South. Mississippi has roughly 110,000 acres of ponds and produces 50 million pounds of fish daily. That's about 70 percent of the nation's total catfish production. Arkansas is produces catfish. Mississippi had $300 million in catfish sales last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The nation's producers, who were paid a high of about 77 cents per pound in April 2000, had to accept 70 cents per pound six months later, Warren said. The price is still on the decline this year, he said. Producers also complain Vietnam's costs are low because of cheap labor and lax environmental regulations.

``The fish that they are selling is not only a different species, it is a different family,'' Warren said. ``Vietnam is Communist country so we don't know what environment the catfish is in because they don't have agency like the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to accurately present information.''

The Catfish Institute provides ``U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish'' seals to many of the nation's catfish producers. Henry Gantz, president of the Belzoni-based organization, said catfish growers are faced with one big challenge. ``So far all of the processors are using the seal on their boxes and packages.

Our challenge really is to get the seal in the display cases in grocery stores,'' he said. Warren said if the country-origin designation is approved, consumers still may pick up Vietnamese fish by mistake.

``With the Vietnamese fish being display under the name 'Farm-Raised Catfish' it has caused a lot of confusion,'' Warren said. ``Many people don't realize that it is not U.S. farm-raised catfish that are fed a controlled diet in monitored waters to ensure the safety and health of the product.''