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U.S. Catfish Is in Troubled Water as Asian Catch Seizes the Market

Food: Vietnamese basa and tra look and taste like the fish along the Mississippi Delta. Farmers contend they are sold below cost.

July 16, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ITTA BENA, Miss. — It's 100 degrees, the mosquitoes are descending in clouds and five men with shirts stuck to their backs with sweat wade into the slime-green pond and begin to scoop out catfish.

Their nets are full. The fish are fat.

But these days, that's almost a curse.

The whiskered critters--a staple of the Southern diet, a symbol of the region's culture--are barely worth the grain it costs to feed them. That's because 8,000 miles away, in little houseboats bobbing along a different delta, the Mekong, Vietnamese families are raising fish that look like catfish and taste like catfish.

The cheaper imports, which have surged by 800% in two years, are bedeviling Mississippi's catfish economy and farmers here now worry that the prized frozen fillet market could fall like Saigon.

Congress tried to help, declaring that of the 2,500 species scientists refer to as "catfish," only those raised on U.S. farms could be sold under that label. But catfish or not, the Vietnamese fish continue to arrive by the boatload. "They're killing us," said Noel Barrett, president of America's Catch, a major catfish farm and processor here. "They may not have lemon-pepper seasoning or Cajun varieties. But they're selling tons of fillets."

About two weeks ago, in an effort to rescue their $500-million-a-year industry, American catfish farmers filed an anti-dumping petition against Vietnam. On Friday, lawyers will appear in front of the U.S. International Trade Commission to ask for a 190% duty on the Vietnamese basa and tra fish. They will argue that the communist government is pricing the catfish cousins artificially low, making it impossible for American growers, concentrated in the impoverished Mississippi Delta, to compete.

A generation ago, these same farmers turned away from cotton and rice and hitched their hopes to the flat-headed, scaleless bottom-feeder once called a river rat.

They worked hard to erase that image, spending millions of dollars on ad slogans like "Catfish: the Cultured Fish," and training fingerlings (catfish minnows) to eat from the surface. There's even a catfish museum in Belzoni, Miss., with a grinning sculpture out front.

The thousands of neatly cut catfish ponds have now become as much a part of the Delta landscape as the shimmering two-lane highways, the peeling-paint churches and the endless rows of crops stretching toward the horizon.

The Vietnamese say Americans are trying to unfairly protect their industry.

"More than 20 years after their failure during the Vietnam War, [American officials] opt to launch a new war [against] Vietnamese tra and basa catfish," according to a statement on the embassy's Web site.

Fried catfish is like the hot dog of the South, an easy, popular dish usually served with okra and rice. The first farms opened in the 1960s in Arkansas and Mississippi.

"We were looking for an alternative to row crops," said Turner Arant, who dug his first pond in 1962 near Itta Bena after someone had given him a handful of fingerlings "to play with."

Arant now has more than 50 ponds, and gone are the days when he used to walk along the banks slinging handfuls of feed from a bucket. Now there are fingerling companies, net companies and equipment companies that build trucks to spray catfish feed across the water.

Scientists have formulated the mixture to make a catfish fillet nutritionally competitive with chicken and other fish (128 calories, 15 grams of protein, 7 grams of fat per 3.5-ounce serving).

Starting five years ago, American seafood companies began buying Vietnamese basa and tra. In 1999, 2 million pounds were imported; by 2001, that number jumped to 17 million. Vietnam now controls 20% of the fillet market. Many scientists argue that Vietnamese varieties are as much catfish as those swimming in the Mississippi.

"Absolutely no one in the aquarium industry or the scientific community has ever restricted the word 'catfish' to North America," said Carl Ferraris, a catfish expert at the California Academy of Science.

The Food and Drug Administration agreed with him. Congress, in a measure passed in November, overruled them.

The anti-dumping petition is the first major trade dispute with Vietnam, which normalized relations with the U.S. in 1995. To win, American catfish farmers must prove that low prices--50 cents per pound of raw fish compared with 80 cents two years ago--are caused by Vietnam selling fish below cost.

Much of the basa and tra are raised in cages in the Mekong Delta by families who live in houseboats and feed them through holes cut in the floor. The Vietnamese say lower labor costs are why Vietnamese fillets retail for $1.60 per pound, compared with $2.40 for U.S. catfish.

The Vietnamese also say the U.S. catfish industry is overproducing. In 1970, 5.7 million pounds of catfish were processed. Last year, it was 600 million. The fish "you don't need to fry to love" is now fourth-most popular, after tuna, Alaskan pollock (used for fish sticks) and salmon. It passed cod in 1998.

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