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Mississippi Catfish Industry Continues to Shrink

by the Fish Site Editor
10 August 2009, at 1:00am

MISSISSIPPI STATE, US Catfish pond acreage in Mississippi continues to decline, with the high cost of production and poor prices partly to blame.

Jim Steeby, aquaculture specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the entire U.S. catfish industry is downsizing. As of late July, Mississippi had 70,000 acres of catfish ponds, down from the high of 113,000 acres the state had in 2001, writes Bonnie Coblentz, Mississippi State University Ag Communications.

For two years, commodity prices, energy costs, increasing imports and the downturn in the economy have worked against catfish farmers and caused them to reduce their acreage, Steeby said. Steeby works in Belzoni with MSUs Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center.

Mississippi still leads the nation in catfish production, with Alabama and Arkansas a distant second and third at 21,700 and 20,500 acres, respectively, of catfish ponds. Mississippi also leads in fingerling production, but only 50 percent of the states catfish hatcheries operated in 2009.

Feed prices continue to be the largest cost of production. They were as high as $350 a ton this year but dropped to $330 a ton by early August. Three years ago, catfish producers paid $240 a ton for feed.

The increase in soybean and corn prices has caused feed to become more expensive, Steeby said. Soybean meal is the predominant component of catfish feed, with corn next. These are good sources of protein and energy for fish growth, and there are no replacements that can be substituted in catfish feed.

The U.S. Department of Agricultures feed assistance program is offering some relief to Mississippi producers as they deal with high commodity prices. Under the program, catfish producers can receive a feed credit of up to $100,000 for what they spent on feed in 2008. This credit can be used to buy feed for this years crop.

Catfish need a warm spring for the young to hatch and mature, then a sunny, warm summer to promote good feeding and growth. Weather this year hasnt cooperated for catfish producers.

The cool, wet spring limited catfish feeding. It was followed by six weeks of very hot weather, which at times decreased feeding rates when water temperatures were around 90 degrees day and night, Steeby said. The cooler weather in late July and early August lowered pond temperatures, but wet conditions limit feeding opportunities on some days.

Over the past 10 years, processors have preferred larger fish, with 1.5- to 3-pound fish bringing the highest live fish prices. It takes about three years to grow fish to this size.

John Anderson, Extension agricultural economist, said prices for the first quarter of 2009 were a little better than prices from the same period in 2008. While this sounds like good news, Anderson said it mainly reflects very low 2008 prices.

Catfish prices bottomed out at around 65 cents a pound in late 2007, Anderson said. Prices did not really begin to recover from those lows until about the second quarter of 2008, reaching a high just under 83 cents a pound in September, according to USDAs monthly catfish processing report.

Anderson said catfish prices then began a fairly steady decline through the middle of 2009 to average about 76 cents a pound in June. Prices improved a little in July and were averaging about 78 cents a pound in early August.

With catfish prices falling since the end of 2008 and input prices -- especially feed and energy prices -- still high by historic standards, the industry remains in a fairly difficult spot, Anderson said. This situation is very similar to that faced by all livestock producers right now.

the Fish Site Editor