Friday, September 14, 2012

TOP STORY >> Fish farmers call it quits

Leader senior staff writer

A year ago, Lonoke fishmonger Robert Murtha told The Leader the writing was on the wall for Arkansas farm-raised catfish.

After 20 years of farming, then another 20 years dressing and selling fish from his roadside shed on Hwy. 31 just east of Lonoke, Murtha sold the shed cover and headed to the house.

“I took the sign down yesterday,” he said Tuesday.

When his shed burned to the ground several years ago, he rebuilt and soldiered on, but now high feed prices and foreign competition have done what that fire couldn’t.

“I’ve retired,” Murtha said. “I’m tired of fighting.” Catfish feed has risen from about $200 a ton to as much as $600 a ton over about five years, according to some reports.

The rise in feed prices, fueled in part by increased demand for corn from which to make ethanol, already was a problem for catfish producers, but with a drought- driven reduction in the corn harvest, prices have risen dramatically.

FEED UP 50 percent

Feed prices are up 50 percent compared to this time last year, Roger Barlow said Tuesday. Barlow, vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America and president of the Catfish Institute, said it’s no accounting trick. It absolutely costs more to produce a pound of catfish than the farmers can sell it for.

Domestic pond catfish prices are $3 a pound, but fish imported from China and Vietnam cost about $2 a pound, which is important to restaurants running on a thin profit margin.

“You’ve got an industry at levels that are not sustainable,” he said.

The producers are squeezed between rising feed prices and the downward price pressure caused by that foreign competition.


Catfish pond acreage has declined 50 percent in the last five years, Barlow said, and it’s likely to decrease more.”

A year ago, Lonoke County had three farms producing catfish or fingerlings among their stock. But Larry Raper has quit the business since then, citing feed prices, according to Anita Kelly extension aquaculture specialist out of Lonoke.

“They are losing money with every fish they raise,” she said.

“The ones that are still in business are adjusting how and when they feed their fish,” Kelly said, and some have gone through a national training program aimed at implementing such efficiencies.

Catfish farming is most prevalent in the poorest regions of Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, and it provides jobs in those depressed areas, Barlow said.

He said some farmers have already converted their ponds into soybean fields.

Kelly said some are planting rice in their ponds since they are designed to hold water.

“We are encouraging people to eat U.S. farm-raised catfish to help the industry out,” she said.


Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has refused four recent shipments of Vietnamese pangasius with residues of nitrofurans.

That fish is sometimes sold as U.S. catfish.

“Studies have shown that residues of nitrofurans ingested by consumption of contaminated product are bioavailable,” according to a FDA press release forwarded by the Catfish Institute.

“When consumed, nitrofuran residues are absorbed by the consumer’s body and again form tissue-bound residues. Since the compound is considered to be carcinogenic and genotoxic, consumption over time of product contaminated with nitrofurans may present a human health risk,” the FDA said.

Jeff McCord, a consultant for the Catfish Institute, said that only about 2 percent of imported seafood is inspected and tested at U.S. ports.

Fish that is rejected too often finds another U.S. port in which to unload, or else they go further south to other countries, McCord said.

Nitrofurans have been banned for use or consumption in the U.S. for about 20 years.

The fish also contained other antibiotics that ingested by people could help some bacteria develop resistance.