Imports And Regulations Have Suffocated The Mississippi Catfish Industry.

Imports And Regulations Have Suffocated The Mississippi Catfish Industry – It’s difficult to miss the enormous orange sign welcoming visitors to the “Catfish Capital of the World” as you drive into Belzoni, Mississippi.

It’s also difficult to miss the dozens of 5-foot-tall fiberglass catfish sculptures – many of which are dressed in painted-on pants, dresses, and overalls – that stand like sentinels outside active and abandoned businesses and along the city’s worn sidewalks.

Belzoni flaunts its ancestral ties to catfish farming operations in the Mississippi Delta. Yet, in many ways, the city in 2018 represents a significant regional sector struggling for years due to price swings, regulatory changes, and import competition.

Still, things aren’t entirely as they were for a sector that sells fish to restaurants and grocery shops across the country and helps to support one of the country’s poorest regions. As a result, none of the 18 counties in Mississippi’s Delta region made it into a new U.S. News list of the country’s top 500 Healthiest Communities, research that looked at socioeconomic aspects linked to community health, including economic well-being.

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“We used to produce about 600 million pounds of live fish, and now we only produce about three hundred and fifty (350) million,” says Solon Scott III, president of America’s Catch, a catfish-farming and processing operation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, some 26 miles north of Belzoni in Leflore County. “We have several great folks on our team. However, this is a complicated business.”

Many such statues line the streets of Belzoni, Miss., including this one of a catfish dressed as a firefighter. (USN&WR/Andrew Soergel)

During the peak of American catfish production in the 1970s, Belzoni and the surrounding Humphreys County earned the moniker “catfish capital.” After local farmers essentially rebranded the whiskered swimmers – with their reputation for being bottom-feeders – as a farm-raised delicacy, the industry exploded in Humphreys and throughout the Delta.

Local landowners who chose to turn their row-crop fields into fish ponds were the eventual benefactors of the transition, which is today recognized as a modern marketing marvel.

“Back in the 1970s, it looked like that was the thing to do. It was a burgeoning industry, and it all began in the Delta, “Scott explains. “In the United States, we initiated a big marketing push to get the fish out of the river and into a controlled setting.”

The industry’s growth was particularly timely since it occurred amid a wave of industrial offshore and technological breakthroughs that began to eliminate factory jobs in the area. As a result, the Delta’s economy relied heavily on catfish farming to stay afloat.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, the textile industries virtually left Mississippi. These processing plants were built on the backs of that workforce “Director of the Mississippi State University Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Mississippi, Jimmy Avery. “If you look at these processing plants in numerous of these counties, they may be the third- or fourth-largest employment in those counties.”

Humphreys County had 6,000 acres of catfish ponds in 1976, more than any other country. Around the same time, Belzoni sponsored its inaugural World Catfish Festival, attracting 3,000 guests and establishing the little town as a significant catfish player. Belzoni’s yearly celebration has continued since then, with the 43rd edition taking place this month. According to the Belzoni-Humphreys Development Foundation, the festival has drawn more than 10,000 attendees in the past, despite the rain and a cold front complicating celebrations and forcing the simultaneous Miss Catfish pageant indoors.

Beyond the brightly painted catfish statues and annual festival hunger, though, Belzoni’s economy has aged more like fish than wine in specific ways. Since 1999, the number of municipal citizens living in poverty has increased from 35 percent to more than 40%. Between 2000 and 2016, the city’s population decreased by 18 percent, while the number of Belzoni people classified as employed reduced by more than 36%.

Between 2010 and 2017, Humphreys County lost 11% of its overall population, according to Census estimates. As of 2016, 65.3 percent of its population had completed high school, compared to 87 percent nationally, and only approximately 52.5 percent had a job or were actively looking for one.

Catfish farming has a large presence in the region today, but its influence has declined somewhat.

According to county data gathered by Auburn University and Mississippi State University, the quantity of land used for catfish production in Humphreys has decreased from 25,300 acres in 2003 to slightly over 8,000 acres in 2011.

In much of Mississippi and other important catfish-producing states in the Southeast, such as Alabama and Arkansas, a similar downward spiral was observed. For example, catfish acreage in Mississippi has decreased by more than half, from 109,000 in 2003 to 48,600 in 2013. Over the same period, the reported area decreased by a similar amount, from 187,200 to 83,020. As a result, the catfish business plummeted from processing 662 million pounds of whole fish in 2003 to only 301 million pounds in 2014.

According to Scott, part of the decrease in acreage was due to increased aquaculture and processing efficiency. However, a flood of low-cost imports from China and Vietnam also contributed to the industry’s downfall.

Mississippi Yearning

Catfish demand in the United States has remained largely stable over the last two decades. At the same time, according to Avery’s figures, imports have increased dramatically, from 214 million pounds of live-weight equivalent in 2006 to 854 million pounds in 2016. As a result, catfish growers in the United States have gone from controlling more than two-thirds of the market to less than a third in just a decade.

“It most likely began in the mid-to-late-1990s. (Import) growth was slow at first, but it seemed to double every year, “Scott explains. “Originally, a lot of stuff came from China. The Vietnamese then introduced the pangasius (fish) product. And they’re the biggest; they’re now bringing in twice as much as we are.”

Since 1990, when he took over management of his father’s catfish ponds and production plant, Scott has been at the helm of America’s Catch. His grandpa created Scott Petroleum in 1935, which Scott’s father still runs today, and his family has a long history of commercial development in the area.

America’s Catch owns and operates a 5,000-acre catfish pond and a huge processing facility. According to Scott, the company is in charge of processing 60 million pounds of a 350 million-pound national industry.

On the other hand, import competition has pushed America’s Catch to halve its output, putting the company “sort of in a posture now of having to reestablish ourselves,” he says.

The fact that many international products can’t legally promote their fish as “catfish” within the United States adds to the fact that imports have put such a strain on U.S. farm-raised catfish.

According to federal legislation and labeling rules, only fish in the Ictaluridae family, which includes species like channel and blue catfish, can lawfully be marketed as catfish in the United States.

In Vietnam, similar fish are known as pangasius and are sold under the names basa or swai. However, according to Carole Engle, an aquaculture economist with management and consulting firm Engle-Stone Aquatic$ and adjunct faculty member at the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center, name limitations haven’t done much to slow import growth.

“There’s a lot of fraud in this field,” she says, citing examples of pangasius fish being promoted and sold as “catfish and grouper and all kinds of things.” “I can’t believe the government has allowed this stuff to enter as someone who wants to be proud of our country.”

That isn’t to imply that Congress and federal officials have ignored the problem. On the contrary, in recent years, the government has attempted to enforce tariffs targeting Vietnamese catfish dumping, and discussions of import curbs and quotas have further added to the country’s antipathy.

The Vietnamese government filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization earlier this year, alleging that the United States’ transfer of pangasius import oversight from the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service – which is thought to have more stringent standards – constituted an unfair trade barrier.

The food safety service currently handles domestic catfish inspections.

“It’s more difficult. In the long term, it’s probably a better idea to ensure that everything is up to a higher level “The regulatory shift, according to Scott. “We’re doing a good job, but it seems like every year we have to devote several weeks to new regulations. And it takes a lot of people’s time to research new regulations.”

Scott claims that he isn’t anti-regulation. However, he and many other producers who have worked with Engle are concerned that they are incurring costs and following laws that their overseas peers can avoid in some circumstances.

“One of the major reasons the pangasius has a reduced production cost is their extremely high yield,” Engle explains. In addition, she claims that rather than adhering to the environmental rules used in the United States, Vietnamese operations can discharge fish waste into the Mekong River, allowing them to produce a more cost-effective product. “Our (domestic) business is built on products that do not pollute the environment.”

Despite its troubles, the catfish industry has remained in the Delta, just like Belzoni’s catfish statues have remained even while some of the structures beside them have succumbed to the passage of time.

Feed prices, which are known for increases at inopportune times and are one of the most significant expenses for any catfish company, are “on the lower end of typical lately,” according to Scott, helping with profitability and regulatory costs.

According to data provided to U.S. News by The Catfish Institute, marketing and promotional nonprofit created in Belzoni in the 1980s, the sector still employs over 7,600 people throughout farming, processing, and feed-mill facilities across the country.

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Those figures also don’t account for the industry’s impact on related sectors such as grain farming and building.

“People frequently use the term “economic multipliers.” When you compare it to cotton, cotton is exported to other states or countries to be processed into the end product, “Avery explains. “Within the state, we process (catfish). We produce the feedstock right here in the state. Mississippi exports that feedstock to other states on a net basis. As a result, we grow it, process it here, and add value to it.”

Scott agreed, pointing out that his business and its 400 employees are among the county’s most significant private-sector operations.

“I believe the catfish sector has a huge impact on America’s poorest region,” Scott says, referring to the Mississippi Delta. “The multiples are huge in this area, not only for the individuals who work here but also for the box suppliers, the farmers we buy from – the list goes on and on.”

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