Southern Catfish Farmers Push Back Against Imports

Jun 7, 2017  | 7 min  | Ep4242

As part of his “America First” agenda, President Trump set in motion a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. As preparations get underway, the U.S. hammered out an interim deal on Mexican sugar imports this week.

While stiff tariffs remain at bay, both sides haven’t sugar-coated their dislike for the agreement.

Catfish producers also are among those staving off foreign competition. In a sea of increased regulation and limited client base, Southern producers are fighting back.

Producer Delaney Howell has our Cover Story. 


The day for Battle Fish Farms harvest crew starts early; they’ve been waiting 18 months for this pond of catfish to be ready. Bill Battle, a native of Tunica, Mississippi, and owner of Battle Fish Farms, has raised catfish since he can remember.  
Bill Battle, Owner of Pride of the Pond: “My first recollection of fish farming was riding in the back of a car watching the little sac fry we had in a bag to bring to the first pond we ever built. I guess that was about 1969 or 70. From there went on to run the hatcheries and worked on a fish farm every holiday and summer vacation. Everybody else went to Florida and I went to the fish farm.”
Battle, a Catfish Farmers of America board member, says raising and processing fish at his operation takes up every one of the 24 hours available in a day and requires the help of some 150 employees. 
Britton Hatcher is the Mississippi Farm Bureau’s Aquaculture commodity adviser.
Britton Hatcher, Mississippi Farm Bureau: “Catfish in the wild are bottom feeding fish, but the way I try to explain catfish in a farm raised setting, it’s just like cattle. Grass-fed beef has a different taste than does feed lot. Catfish are the same. In the wild they’re going to be a little bit different. If you’ve ever watched a catfish being fed they go out there and throw feed on the water and our fish are just churning all along the top they’re not at the bottom.”
Battle Fish Farms’ 100 ponds produce nearly 10 million pounds of fish every year. When the catfish are ready, a crew harvests the bounty with nets that allow the smaller fish to swim through, letting them grow to a size that turns a profit. 
Pride of the Pond, Battle’s processing facility, opened in the early 1980’s and runs 4 days per week depending on demand and the number of fish harvested in nets or purchased from other producers. 
U.S. farm raised catfish production soared in the 70s topping out in the early 2000s. But after foreign imports from trading partners like Vietnam and China, higher production costs, and a weak domestic economy contributed to total catfish pond acreage falling nearly 65 percent. Today, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas account for 90 percent of all U.S. production which tipped the scales at 315 million pounds in 2015 - nearly 1/3 of total domestic consumption.
Over the past 4 and a half decades, producers have encountered many changes. Battle and the nearly 185 other catfish producers, concentrated in southern states, are facing some of their greatest challenges in the history of the industry. 
Bill Battle, Owner of Pride of the Pond: “My father was really involved in the industry and he came home one day and said look, the Malachite that you’re using, you got to get rid of it. If the FDA or whoever finds it on the farm they’ll shut us down. You know it still mystifies me why other countries can use all those banned items and send the fish in here for us to eat and for us to feed our children you know if they catch me using it in this country it’s doomsday for me. And I don’t want to use it I mean I want product that’s good for me and good for my kids I probably eat more catfish than anybody.”
Prior to March 2016, catfish imports and domestic production were inspected and monitored by the Food and Drug Administration. Years of lobbying in Congress resulted in catfish being classified as a “meat” in the 2008 Farm Bill. After nearly 8 years, inspection authority passed to USDA’s, Food Safety and Inspection Service. 
Under the year-old program, FSIS is nearing the September 1 deadline where 100 percent of all catfish and catfish-like product imports will be inspected. Previously, officials inspected only 2 percent of this import category. 
Initially, Senate Republicans, led by John McCain of Arizona, voted to end the inspection process handled by FSIS and return regulation to the FDA. 
Several catfish industry members went to Washington D.C. just days before Congress began its August 2016 recess to rally U.S. House members against the resolution. However, the legislation never made it to the floor.
Hatcher, like many others, emphasizes the issue is about food safety and industry image. 
Britton Hatcher, MS Farm Bureau Catfish Commodity Adviser: “A fear I have one batch comes in gets a lot of people sick they’re going to paint this industry with a broad brush nobody’s gonna wanna eat catfish again because they’re going to say that catfish made me sick when they don’t understand that this was from China or Vietnam or wherever it comes from and this is U.S. Farm Raised catfish.”
Many of those fighting to return inspection to the FDA say those who support increased scrutiny are a small group of southern catfish industry members with a political agenda and not a coalition seeking to identify a food safety issue.
The National Fisheries Institute, a non-profit organization made up of importers, exporters, producers, processors, and restaurants, among others, voiced opposition to the change in procedure and support lawmakers who want the mandate repealed. 
Gavin Gibbons, National Fisheries Institute: “The reality is the folks who will be hurt the most by this in the long-run are U.S. Ag exports because what’s likely to happen is if this program goes forward there will be a WTO lawsuit from Vietnam or from China and the U.S. will lose that lawsuit. And when they do lose that lawsuit there will be retaliatory tariffs placed on U.S. ag exports and the reason that U.S. ag exports will be targeted is that we don’t export any catfish. Not a single whisker of catfish is exported from this country, so there is nothing in the catfish realm to retaliate against. So the real losers here are going to be corn, beef, soy, cotton, those type of exports.”
Despite current rules, two recent developments may gut the new inspection protocol. President Trump’s proposed budget cuts could send the inspection program back to the FDA. And requests by Vietnamese trade officials to remove the new inspection program were made to top Republicans just as the signatures dried on a series of trade deals totaling $15 billion.
Nat break 
Battle, like other producers know they will continue to face opposition from those in Washington, and foreign competition. 
Bill Battle, Owner of Pride of the Pond: “And I told someone not long ago, old boy trying to raise catfish in Mississippi never thought he’d be, they’d need him to go to Washington to knock on doors and house of Congress. I mean it takes a lot to put fish in the box these days; it really does. 

For Market to Market, I’m Delaney Howell.


More from this show

Grinnell Mutual Insurance