By Dan Burden, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Revised April 2012 by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center.
Channel catfish continue to be one of the most important farm-raised freshwater species in the United States, particularly in the South. As of 2010, catfish was the sixth most popular fish or seafood consumed in the United States; only shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, tilapia and pollock were more popular. That year, Americans consumed an average of 15.8 pounds of seafood per person, and 0.8 pounds of that was catfish. This value, however, represented a significant reduction from the 0.97 pounds consumed per person in 2006, the year in which tilapia surpassed catfish to take the fifth-place spot on the list of most-consumed seafood products (National Fisheries Institute 2011).
Farm-raised channel catfish generally reproduce naturally in designated spawning ponds from which eggs are collected and transported to hatcheries. Fry are hatched and reared indoors, with the resulting fingerlings released into ponds for grow-out. Most farm-raised catfish are cultured in ponds with constructed levees. These levees form above-ground ponds four to six feet deep, usually of 10 to 20 water surface acres each. Development of special diets has greatly improved the taste of the finished product, eliminating the “fishy” or “muddy” flavor that once was associated with pond-reared catfish early in the development of the industry. To ensure freshness, fish are seined from ponds and sent live to processing plants in aerated tank trucks. Processing plants produce a variety of wholesale offerings including whole fish, strips, nuggets, steaks, fillets and pre-marinated and breaded products. Properly processed and frozen, farmed catfish retain excellent product quality for two to four months.
As of January 1, 2012, approximately 89,400 acres of ponds were used for catfish production in the United States, down 10 percent from the previous year's 99,600 acres. Inventory numbers also declined during the same period for several categories of catfish, including large foodsize fish and fingerlings. Numbers of large and small stockers on hand on January 1, 2012 were up 4 and 34 percent, respectively, but the number of fingerlings was down 21 percent when compared to estimates at the beginning of the previous year (NASS 2012). These trends suggest continued decreases in production may occur over the next several years.
The number of catfish operations decreased to 718 in 2012, with 191 operations leaving the business in 2011. (NASS 2012).
Catfish producers in the United States had total sales of $423 million during 2011, up 5 percent from the previous year's $403 million and increasing in value for the second consecutive year. The four top producing states--Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas--accounted for 95 percent of total U.S. sales. As many growers left the business and liquidated their inventories, the sales total of all foodsize fish reached $391 million, a 4 percent increase over 2010 sales (NASS 2012).
In 2011, 334 million pounds of U.S. farm-raised catfish were processed, 29 percent less than the 472 million pounds processed in 2010. The 2011 average price received for processed fish was $3.52 per pound, up 92 cents from the previous year. (NASS 2011)
Exports and Imports
According to the USDA, the total weight of fresh and frozen U.S. catfish exported during 2011 was 722,000 pounds, down 23 percent from the previous year. During the same period, imports of catfish and similar species increased from 138 million pounds to 204 million pounds. Both trends probably reflected impacts of higher prevailing prices for domestically processed catfish.
Over the past decade, input price increases have drastically reduced the profitability of catfish production. Overall, acreage has declined by more than 50 percent during the period from December 2001 to December 2011. In spite of recent high prices at the pond bank, new or prospective producers should not assume there will be a willing buyer at harvest time. Most current catfish production is sold to large processors, and new producers may be too far from a processor to economically market their catfish through this low-premium conduit.
New processing plants that locate in areas with little existing production and rely on promises of new production will almost certainly fail within the first few years. The reasons for these failures include: (1) limited cash flow; (2) harvesting and logistical problems in transporting fish to the processing plant; (3) inconsistent fish supplies; and (4) established producers in the area who already have specialty markets for live fish that offer better prices. Also, generally, it takes 18 to 30 months in construction and production time for a farmer to produce his first crop of fish. For this reason, the scarcity of start-up capital or high interest rates will limit or prevent the development of new production acreage, as well as make it more difficult to compete with existing processors for market share.
Even in areas with established production and processing, farmers should continually investigate new markets. Although perhaps limited in size and availability, these markets can be more profitable than wholesale sales to processors. Alternative markets include live-haulers, on-farm sales, fee fishing and local sales (Catfish Production, NASS).
The overall outlook for established catfish producers and processors is mixed; they will face a number of difficult issues in the coming years. Since corn and soybean meal prices continue to be high, feed costs will remain high. Imports of competing seafood products, and the general health of the economy and its impact on restaurant sales will also affect consumer demand.
Top 10 Consumed Seafood, National Fisheries Institute, aboutseafood.com, 2010 - Lists the top ten species consumed in the United States by pounds per person.