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It's catfish to go, shrimp to come: aquaculture's growing impact on U.S.

It's Catfish to Go, Shrimp to Come: Aquaculture's Growing Impact on U.S.

Slowly but surely, American food processing companies increase their investments in fish farming. And for good reason: the demand-driven market offers lots of opportunity.

They're starting to sell U.S. farm-raised catfish in Japan. Meanwhile, Panama is among the latest sites for shrimp farms that will doubtless sell most of their product to the United States.

Delta Pride Catfish Co., Indianola, Miss., is one of the leading factors in the fast-growing farm-raised catfish industry, and is looking for new markets in Japan as well as Western Europe.

Granada Corp., Houston, Texas, is known primarily for bringing a high-tech approach to the cattle industry. Now it's following the same route to the shrimp industry at its Panamanian mariculture operation.

"Shrimp farming is much like cattle ranching was years ago," a company spokesman noted after acquiring Agromarina de Panama S.A. several years ago. "Most breeding stock is captured from the ocean, and little is known about the genetic advantages of various strains."

By applying the same genetic research and engineering techniques to shrimp that it has already applied to cattle, Granada intends to bring the scientific age to mariculture -- it has even set up another subsidiary, Granada Mariculture Technologies, Inc., to that end. Reliable seedstock production has been the first priority.

With Agromarina came a hatchery at Veracruz, with production tanks capable of turning out 30 million post larvae a month, and a growout operation in nearby Aguadulce with a yield of more than 1,800 pounds a year per acre. One of the first priorities: expanding hatchery output by a third, by putting more tanks in operation at Veracruz.

Long-range goals involve genetic selection: for example, Granada would like to develop female shrimp that don't burn out and die after only five months, but can regenerate for another season of laying eggs. And those eggs: up to 100,000 may be laid in a single spawning, but only about one percent of them actually produce shrimp under current mariculture techniques.

Granada shouldn't have a problem selling all the shrimp it can produce: the United States has a voracious appetite that has to be satisfied largely with imports from China, Ecuador, Thailand, Mexico, India and Taiwan, because there just isn't enough domestic supply. Actually, that goes a bit for catfish too -- the U.S. imported 2,551 tons last year, mostly from Brazil, to supplement 127,649 tons of domestic production.

Catfish is probably the fastest-growing food industry in the United States -- for the first six months of this year, sales of frozen catfish products were up 32%, from 3,242 tons to 3,346; and fresh output up 44% from 2,205 to 3,174 tons. But prices for 1989 haven't been keeping up with those for last year, and that's another obvious incentive to develop the export market -- maybe people will like catfish better in London or Tokyo than in Boston or Seattle.

So far, Tokyo seems a better bet, according to Gerry Holaday, international sales representative for Delta Pride. The very name "catfish" turns off a lot of European buyers, because it seems there are native species, also called "catfish," that nobody would want to eat. "People in England say, `No way!'," Holaday reported. But Delta Pride has gotten its foot in the door in Japan during the past couple of years, he added.

"If you're selling fish, you might as well start where they're eating it," Holaday quipped. "Once we get people over there to try it, they like it." Catfish has been tried out on Japanese importers and restaurateurs at food shows sponsored by the U.S. embassy, and Delta Pride has signed up some Japanese foodservice distributors that serve what Holaday calls "niche markets," adding, "Now what we're trying to do is expand to places like the major Western-style restaurant chains such as Denny's and Red Lobster."

Retail sales don't offer much of an opportunity in Japan because the retail market for frozen food generally is small -- stores don't have room for large frozen food sections and typical apartments don't have space for freezers. Even in the foodservice sector, breaking through isn't easy--there aren't any megadistributors like Sysco (a major Delta Pride customer in the U.S.), but rather a host of small distributors with traditional ties to select customers and a conservative reaction to new products of any kind.

One advantage catfish seem to have right now, in both domestic and export markets: they're fresh-water-raised. "There's been a lot of negative publicity about ocean pollution," Holaday pointed out, and even if dirty hypodermic needles on New Jersey beaches don't really have anything to do with cod from the Grand Banks, the negative image sticks. That may help explain why such food processing giants as ConAgra and Geo. A. Hormel are getting interested in fish-farming, which they have previously avoided because it has been considered too risky and capital-intensive. So far, the main interest seems to be in trout, into which potato products processor J.R. Simplot has already ventured.

Catfish are grown in huge ponds scooped out of the clay-like soil of the Mississippi Delta and other river bottomlands where cotton used to be king. Catfish farmers have standing contracts with processors like Delta Pride, much as chicken farmers have deals with Frank Perdue. Catfish aren't inordinately difficult to raise, but there are common problems such as algae infestation of ponds -- people want catfish with a mild, nutty flavor, not with a musty algae taste. Some farmers add carp to their ponds to hold down the algae. There are periodic samplings of fish before harvest, and some operators have several farms with staggered harvest times to keep both the fish and the profits coming at a more even rate.

Delta Pride picks up 95% of its catfish in its own trucks; the rest is brought in by farmers from remote locations in Alabama and Arkansas in their trucks. The fish are unloaded into holding tanks with aerated well water, where they are usually held only two minutes to two hours (although some, harvested in the evening, are held overnight to reduce stress). From the holding tanks, they are fed onto a conveyor, where they are stunned by electric shock. The conveyor feeds the stunned fish into several production lines, where they are headed, gutted and skinned in most cases, and put into chillers to reduce their temperature to 32 [degrees] F. Once chilled, they are sorted into 12 size grades, weighed, and put on ice.

Some frozen catfish are put into individual bags, 15 bags to a box, then placed in a blast freezer for two days. Others are frozen in a spiral belt freezer at -30 [degrees] F for 15 to 20 minutes. Frozen catfish from the belt freezer are automatically weighed, graded and boxed -- spring scales and the like are ancient history. Some filleting is still done by hand, but there is also a Baader 184 filleting machine that produces 40-45 fillets a minute vs. three a minute by hand. Heading, skinning and gutting machines (65, 12 and 15 catfish a minute, respectively) have also been introduced. Delta Pride's refrigerated storage facility has 12 loading docks for trucks. The company does some battered, breaded and marinated products of its own, and also sells fillets to Mrs. Paul's for breading there.

Even before it bought into Panamanian shrimp farming, Granada had been working on shrimp biotechnology at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Corpus Christi -- developing techniques such as inducing wild shrimp to reproduce in captivity and freezing shrimp semen, spawn and embryos. So far, however, according to Dr. Daryl McCullough of Granada Genetics, there haven't been any major breakthroughs. "All of those things are not as easy to do as to say," he explained. But research is continuing, both in Panama and at an artificial water experimental hatchery in Texas.

Despite the U.S. stand-off with the regime of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, Dr. McCullough said, operations in Panama are continuing on a normal basis, with the hatchery supplying shrimp larvae to both Granada's own growout farm and other shrimp farms, and weekly export shipments of mature shrimp being made to both the U.S. and Europe. Under a directive of the U.S. State Department, he said, Granada has had to put payments due the Panamanian government into escrow, but otherwise there haven't been serious problems.

Dr. McCullough noted that the ups and downs of the market, and competition from places like China and Ecuador, inhibit the development of Panamanian shrimp culture and the research program to support it. He also pointed out that others are making advances in shrimp farming, particularly in South Carolina, where some ponds are getting yields of 2,000 to 3,000 pounds an acre, or even more. And that is just with farming techniques, not with reproductive technology, the focus of much of his own work for Granada.

Norwegian farmed salmon exports, meanwhile, may get a boost from ultra-cryogenic freezing at -70 [degrees] C, according to the Norwegian Council for Fishery Research. Salmon and other fatty fish frozen conventionally at -18 to -30 [degrees] C tend to go bad because the fat turns rancid, and the only way to assure freshness has been to ship fresh salmon by air to overseas markets. That's expensive, and obviously limits the market. Since Norwegian salmon farms are rapidly expanding their output, they can't afford to lose export sales to countries that don't want to pay the air freight.

PHOTO : A harvest of farm-raised catfish that may end up on the palates of consumers in Japan as

PHOTO : well as the U.S.
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Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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