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Catfish farmers face another bleak year
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- An oversupply of catfish, economic recession and imports have driven catfish prices to their lowest in years, but farmers are just happy that people have continued to buy as much of their fish as before.
Jimmy Avery, associate Extension catfish specialist at Mississippi State University's Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Stoneville, said the only bright spots for catfish farmers are fairly low feed prices and continued demand for the product.
"We haven't lost any consumer confidence. We still have a good product and people want it, but unfortunately we've got more fish than people want," Avery said.
Poor prices are the result of several factors, one of them being imports of Vietnamese fish that significantly cut into the profitable catfish fillet market. The market also suffers from a general economic slowdown and increased production, which led to an oversupply of catfish.
Avery said prices are about 58 cents a pound now, up from a low of 55 cents per pound two months ago.
"In April of last year, the price was at 69 cents a pound, so prices are down about 16 percent in value," Avery said.
He said a farmer with a higher debt load and costs needs about 70 cents a pound to break even. One whose land is paid for usually can cover costs by selling fish for 62 cents a pound. Even with the lower production cost, farmers are losing about 5 cents on each pound of fish produced.
"If you consider average production is 4,000 pounds per acre and you take a nickel off each pound, that's at least a $200 per acre loss," Avery said.
Jim Steeby, area aquaculture agent in Belzoni with MSU's Extension Service, said he doesn't expect markets to improve until this time next year.
"We'll probably see everybody reduce their inventory drastically, and we'll see some catfish acreage drop out of production," Steeby said. "There never has been any crop subsidy for catfish."
Regardless of markets, catfish still must contend with nature. Mississippi catfish suffered more than usual this year from winter kill, caused by a fungus that attacks when fish are stressed by rapid temperature drops. Steeby estimated the crop had 5 percent winter-season losses.
A colder-than-normal spring slowed spawning season, which typically runs from mid-April to early July. March temperatures also prevented farmers from feeding as early as they would like.
"Feeding depends on water temperatures," Steeby said. "When the water temperature gets up around 70 degrees, farmers feed two to three times per week. Last year by mid-April, farmers had already been feeding for two or three weeks."