Trade Commission Says Vietnamese Fish Is Threatening U.S. Catfish Market

The U.S. International Trade Commission found Thursday a "reasonable indication'' that the nation's catfish industry is being threatened by a cheaper Vietnamese import.

The decision, on a 5-0 vote, will let the Commerce Department proceed with an investigation of whether Vietnamese frozen basa and tra fillets have been dumped into the United States. Dumping is the practice of exporting a product at a price lower than that charged for the same product in a home market.

The Commerce Department could impose a preliminary duty in December after it completes its investigation.

American catfish producers - backed by the industry's chief lobby, Indianola-based Catfish Farmers of America - claim Vietnam has unfairly captured 20 percent of the frozen catfish fillet market.

"This is that major first step we had to have in the process,'' said Hugh Warren, executive vice president of Catfish Farmers of America. "It is kind of gloomy around these pond banks. We need some price recovery.''

Protecting a domestic industry that had revenue of more than $590 million last year is vital to the South. The greatest concentration of catfish farms are in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana. There are more than 190,000 acres of catfish ponds in the United States. Mississippi alone accounts for 110,000 of those acres.

The average price processors pay farmers for catfish has fallen over the past two years. The current price ranges from 55 to 62 cents per pound. The price was 74 cents a pound in January 2000.

A win for U.S. catfish farmers would be a blow to Vietnam's catfish industry, which employs between 300,000 and 400,000 people in the Mekong Delta region. About a third of Vietnam's catfish exports go to the United States, with Europe and Asian neighbors taking the rest.