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Catfish Industry
aka: Ictalurus punctatus

The catfish industry is the largest component of aquaculture in the United States and a significant industry in Arkansas.

Arkansas is the birthplace of the commercial catfish industry, with at least two farms selling catfish in the late 1950s. Arkansas farmers began to replace buffalofish (Ictiobus spp.) with catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) in the 1960s. By 1966, Arkansas had 4,500 acres in catfish production and three processing plants. However, increases in the price of fishmeal (an ingredient used in making fish feeds), an economic recession, and the lack of year-round production technology resulted in an industry downturn in the mid-1970s. Multiple-batch production technologies developed in the 1980s allowed for year-round supplies to processing plants.

Catfish are raised in ten- to twenty-acre earthen ponds. Broodstock lay eggs in submerged cans in May and June. Farmers remove eggs from the cans for transfer to indoor hatcheries from which “fry” are stocked into earthen ponds. Fry grow to become “fingerlings” of four to six inches in length by October, the end of the production season. Fingerlings are stocked into growout ponds the next spring at rates of 5,000 to 8,000 per acre. Catfish are fed floating pelleted feed that contains twenty-eight to thirty-two percent protein, mostly plant proteins. The major ingredient in catfish feed is soybean meal supplemented with other grains and a vitamin and mineral premix. Throughout the growing season, electric or tractor-powered devices aerate the ponds nightly to maintain adequate levels of dissolved oxygen. Catfish reach market size (1.25 to 2 lbs.) in about eighteen months. With restocking each spring, growout ponds typically have multiple sizes of fish at any given time. Fish are harvested by pulling a seine (net with lead weights on the bottom and cork floats on the top) with tractors. Fish are funneled into a floating net pen or “sock” for size grading before being loaded by a boom truck and lift basket onto a transport truck.

After transport to the processing plant, fish are loaded into concrete vats and humanely stunned with electricity. Processing plants are highly automated; fish are in cold or frozen storage within ten minutes of entering the plant.

The primary products are fresh and frozen fillets along with whole-dressed fish; steaks; nuggets; and marinated, breaded, and seasoned products. Traditional markets are the states along the Mississippi River and those in the Southeast and the Southwest. Arkansas leads the nation in per capita consumption of catfish, followed by Mississippi and Alabama. Catfish is sold nationwide and is the sixth-most-consumed type of seafood in the United States.

Imported basa and tra (Pangasius sp.) from Vietnam were sold as “catfish” in the United States beginning about 1999. The U.S. catfish industry was successful in obtaining legislation stipulating that only fish from the Ictaluridae family can be labeled as “catfish” in the United States. In addition, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission ruled that Vietnam was “dumping” (selling below fair market price) basa and tra on U.S. markets. Countervailing duties (import taxes) have since been charged on imported basa and tra from Vietnam.

Livestock feed prices went up dramatically in 2008 as prices of grain commodities increased due to government incentives to produce corn for ethanol manufacture and to speculation in commodity markets. Catfish feed prices increased by 34% from 2007 to 2008, reaching the highest levels on record. Such high feed prices, combined with continued credit difficulties and increasing prices of fuel and fertilizer, caused the costs of farming catfish to also rise. Continued pressure from low-priced imports made it difficult for processors to pass higher production costs through to end consumers. This ensuing financial strain has resulted in contraction of the catfish industry across the United States, including in Arkansas. However, greater awareness of safety concerns over imported products from Vietnam and China has led many core consumers of catfish in states like Arkansas to specifically request American farm-raised catfish. Farm prices rose gradually throughout 2010 and reached record levels of $1.00 to $1.25/lb. in early 2011. Farm-gate prices above $1.00/lb. provide farmers with a profit margin in spite of the high costs of feed and other inputs.

The industry saw some declines over the next couple of years, with prices falling to $.85/lb. in 2013. By 2015, however, prices had risen to around $1.25/lb., according to the Arkansas Department of Agricultures Aquaculture Division—although acreage for the industry had dropped to about 5,800 from a one-time high of more than 25,000 acres in catfish production.

A state labeling law passed in 2015 requires retailers and restaurants to label catfish or similar fish produced in other countries as imported. This law should help domestic catfish producers, who cater to consumers who want fish produced locally that comply with federal quality standards. 

For additional information:
The Catfish Journal. Belzoni, MI: Catfish Farmers of America (1986–).

Catfish Reports. National Agriculture Statistics Service. U.S. Department of Agriculture. http://www.nass.usda.gov/Surveys/Guide_to_NASS_Surveys/Catfish_Production/index.asp (accessed May 21, 2015).

Chase, Glen. “State Catfish Farmers Hope Comeback Near.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 10, 2015, pp. 1G, 8G. 

Tucker, Craig S., and John Hargreaves, eds. Biology and Culture of Channel Catfish. San Diego: Elsevier Publishing Company, 2004.

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Aquaculture/Fisheries Center. http://aqfi.uaex.edu/index.shtml (accessed May 21, 2015).

Carole R. Engle
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

Related Butler Center Lesson Plans:
Arkansas: a Natural State (Grade Kindergarten)

Last Updated 5/21/2015

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