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Revised March 2022
The U.S. catfish farming industry began in earnest in the late 1950’s. Since that time many ups and downs have defined its history. On more than one occasion industry observers have predicted its demise due to competition from imported products and exorbitant cost increases for feed, energy and labor. Nonetheless, the industry is on sound footing again thanks to new technologies and production strategies. All available data indicates that U.S. catfish farmers are now producing their fish on less land for lower costs, while also reducing environmental impacts.
Historically, farm-raised channel catfish have been spawned each spring in designated ponds from which eggs are collected and transported to hatcheries. Over the past decade, however, more commercial ponds are being stocked with hybrid catfish, which are produced through artificial spawning in specialized hatchery operations. Fry are hatched and reared indoors, with the resulting fingerlings released into ponds for their first year of grow-out at relatively high densities followed by a final grow-out period at somewhat lower stocking rates. In the early years of the industry, the high stocking densities and heavy feeding rates required for profitability resulted in frequent off-flavor problems due to widespread blooms of blue-green algae. Fortunately, off-flavor is not as big an issue for cash flow as it once was, thanks to advances in algae control. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved three compounds to reduce the blue-green algae responsible for most off-flavor problems in catfish farming.
Farm-raised catfish are typically cultured in ponds with constructed levees, six to eight feet deep, and usually 10 surface acres or less in size. Ponds that produce fish for processing plants must have smooth, flat bottoms and be accessible by heavy trucks and tractors to allow for harvesting marketable quantities of fish. Fish are seined from ponds and sent live to processing plants in oxygenated tank trucks. Although the industry relied for many years on a harvest strategy that removed the largest fish in a pond while allowing smaller fish to squeeze through the nets and remain to grow larger, this approach does not work with hybrid catfish so the industry has shifted to a single batch production model for the most part. This requires more attention to scheduling, of both production and marketing, in order to avoid oversupply at the end of the second growing season.
Innovative production systems are becoming more widely adopted across the industrial-scale sector – specifically, split-pond units and intensive aeration in traditional ponds. Raising catfish hybrids in split-pond or high-aeration grow-out systems has been shown to increase production to 15,000 lb. per acre and occasionally as much as 22,000 lb. per acre. Small- and medium-scale producers, however, tend to rely on low-intensity methods to minimize risks.
Processing plants convert whole live fish into a variety of wholesale products including whole fish, strips, nuggets, steaks, fillets and pre-marinated and breaded portions. Properly processed and frozen, farmed catfish retain excellent product quality for two to four months or longer, and distribution and cold storage channels are well established for these products. Through contracts with large food distribution companies, product from these industrial scale processors finds its way to even the smallest retail seafood outlets and restaurants, making direct competition difficult.
The processor-based segment of the industry has witnessed considerable consolidation over the past decade, with Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi accounting for the bulk of production. California, North Carolina and Texas also have significant farmed catfish aquaculture. There are, however, numerous small- to mid-size operations scattered across the country that do not have access to processing plants, but cater to alternative markets. The USDA’s 2018 Census of Aquaculture reported catfish production in 28 states. Smaller operations often rely on partial harvests or various trapping gear to obtain manageable amounts of harvestable product for local buyers.
In 2019 (the most recent available data), Americans consumed an average of 0.55 pounds of domestically produced catfish, virtually unchanged from the prior year. However, data from the USDA’s Catfish Production report indicate that total U.S. sales of farmed catfish were $370,735,000 in 2020, down 2.4 percent from the prior year. As of July 2021, acreage in the three major producing states was roughly 53,200 acres, down 3 percent from 2020. At that time, inventories were significantly higher for food-size fish and broodfish, and lower for stockers and fingerlings.
Since spawning only occurs once per year, stocking and feeding rates determine (roughly) catfish age and size at harvest over the following two years. Having a number of ponds stocked at different densities allows regular harvests of uniform product. It also increases the probability of having on-flavor fish when the market requires a harvest. This, however, may also require a significant investment and the need to compete for market share with larger, established producers.
Markets must be available to accommodate your production when it is ready for harvest because maintaining catfish beyond a harvestable size requires excessive feed, labor and energy costs as well as unproductive use of facilities and capital. If you will be farming on a large scale and selling to processing plants, keep in mind that developing and maintaining committed relationships with both suppliers and buyers will be crucial. Most larger-scale producers have agreements with more than one processor and more than one feed supplier. No matter what your scale of production will be, as a catfish producer you will need to provide value through quality control, harvest scheduling and customer service, and in turn your customers must also be willing to provide reliable outlets for your fish when you need to move them.
Accurate and detailed cost projections are essential when establishing a catfish farming business. Projected costs (variable, fixed, marketing and opportunity costs) must be compared to prevailing market prices for the sizes and quality of the fish you intend to produce. The cost of land and/or ponds is often under-emphasized when developing financial projections, while operating costs often dominate the planning process.
Keep in mind economies of scale – a smaller operation will have higher costs and will require a number of small-volume, local markets that are willing and able to pay higher prices. When a small operation loses a customer, alternatives may be limited or nonexistent. Your input suppliers (feed, fingerlings and equipment) must be reliable and trustworthy, even when larger customers are competing with you. Consider your feed requirements – who will supply it, at what cost, and in what quantities will it be delivered? If buying in bags instead of bulk deliveries, your cost of production will automatically go up.
Small scale catfish production may not be profitable without a competitive edge in local markets gained through accessibility, customer service and logistics. Fee fishing or on-site processing and sales may improve revenues, but these approaches usually involve excessive focus on permits, licenses and liability insurance. Nonetheless, any number of marketing campaigns can be developed with local retail partners including in-store product demonstrations, visits by local school groups or targeted marketing through Hispanic or Asian media that serve communities accustomed to purchasing live fish such as catfish.
- The Catfish Institute https://www.uscatfish.com/
- Catfish Production https://usda.library.cornell.edu/concern/publications/bg257f046?locale=en USDA Economics, Statistics and Market Information System, 2021.
- Costs of Small-Scale Catfish Production for Direct Sales https://srac.tamu.edu/fact-sheets/serve/150 Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, 2014.
- USDA 2018 Census of Aquaculture. https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/AgCensus/2017/Online_Resources/Aquaculture/index.phpNational Agricultural Statistics Service, 2019.
- NFI’s Top 10 List Suggests Consumers Diversifying Seafood Consumption https://aboutseafood.com/press_release/nfis-top-10-list-suggests-consumers-diversifying-seafood-consumption/ National Fisheries Institute, 2021.
Revised by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center