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USA catfish supplies likely to tighten, with fillet prices rising accordingly.

Catfish farmers and marketers in the United States are smiling again, and for good reason. Prices are trending upward, with per pound quotes reaching $2.85 for boneless fillets and $1.85 for whole fish in February. The historic high water mark for fillets is $3.10.

"Supplies will be tight," warned Don Haynie, president of Farm Fresh Catfish Co., Hollandale, Mississippi. A 40 million pound shortfall exists at the moment, he told buyers attending the Sea Fare International Conference in Long Beach, Calif. "Hence there's a higher price point this year at both the retail and foodservice levels."

Farmers were fetching 68-cents a pound for harvested live weight when this story was written, and it was being speculated that producer prices could top out at around 75-cents. So, with an average breakeven point of 62-cents, it was again profitable to be in the catfish raising business.

That was not the case last year, when a depressed market saw prices fall to 48.5-cents. Live weight harvests totaled 460 million pounds, representing a 17% increase over 1991. However, the poor return on investment prompted some producers in the fertile Mississippi-Arkansas-Louisiana catfish bowl to refrain from restocking their ponds.

Catfish raising is unquestionably the most successful aquaculture sector in the USA, with output skyrocketing from just 5.7 million pounds in 1970 to today's lofty level. While a number of farmers have been squeezed out of operation by falling prices over the past several years, potential capacity is still thought to be in the 600 million pound range. Per capita consumption is put at one pound among Americans, which places catfish among the top six fish items eaten in the nation.

Haynie predicted that the popularity of catfish will rise to make it the third or fourth greatest consumed fish in 1993. He credited industry promotions and the product's lack of a strong fishy flavor as two reasons why the species has been gaining favor outside of its traditional southern constituency.

A bonus surge in demand could be realized from publicity generated about the eating habits of the White House's new chief occupant. It seems that Bill Clinton's diet consists of more than the fast food fare he enjoys wolfing down at McDonald's after jogging. "Not only does the President like catfish, but his new Secretary of Agriculture comes from a part of Mississippi that just happens to be the nation's most productive catfish-growing area," informed Haynie.

Producers say that they should be able to meet an anticipated 5% increase in demand this year without too much trouble. But it will not be until July that they have a clear picture of the impact of normal winter weather kills on the overall population.

"We don't dispense feed when the temperature is below 55 degrees (F)--they must live off their own fat. If they die, they sink," explained Haynie. "It's not until the water warms up that feeding resumes at the top, which enables us to count them."

Cultivated catfish are typically nourished with pelletized blends of soybeans, corn, milo and wheat. The conversion rate is about two pounds of feed to one pound of meat. Maturity is reached after three years, and optimum harvest weight is three pounds.

It is estimated that the top four processors of catfish provide the USA with up to 80% of its needs. The only foreign country supplying the market with significant volume is Brazil. Imports vary, depending on domestic demand in the South American country. However, as low-price producers, the Brazilians are always a competitive factor.

Texas ranks as the No. 1 market for catfish in the USA. Sales are advancing on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, while purchases further afield in the Far East and the European Community (especially France and Germany) are also on the uptick.
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Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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