Cheap Asian catfish pushing out local business

Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Asian imports are a lot cheaper, but the owner of Catfish Charlie Restaurant in Hammond makes sure his fillets are from Louisiana.

No price is low enough to persuade Harold Corkern to buy the imports that are pushing local fish farmers and catchers out of business. “I wouldn’t take a bit of the stuff if they gave it to me,” he said.

Corkern buys from Pon Food Corp., a Ponchatoula distributor owned by a friend of his.

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Louisiana, the nation’s No. 4 catfish producer, has seen revenues plummet from $75 million to $20 million over the past 10 years.

“We’ve been pretty much operating at a loss for the past few years,” said James Rich. He said his Catfish Wholesale Inc. in Kaplan is the nation’s only processor of wild catfish, and did well for most of its 30-plus years.

Now he’s running on past profits. “It’s something I can’t do for very long,” Rich said.

He has sold catfish all over Louisiana, Texas and nationwide through distributors. Now, more and more buyers now want the cheaper catfish from Vietnam and China.

A few years ago, Vietnamese basa — one of thousands of species of catfish worldwide — were the biggest competitor. Arguing that Vietnamese dealers were tricking people into buying an inferior product, catfish farmers convinced Congress and the Louisiana Legislature in 2002 to pass laws allowing only native U.S. species to be called “catfish” on food labels.

Industry observers say it may well be that nobody was fooled, and U.S. buyers just wanted the prices, which are often half the cost of American-bred catfish.

Chinese catfish imports doubled during the first eight months of 2006 compared to the same period last year, rising to 3.5 million pounds of imported frozen catfish from 1.8 million pounds a year before, according to the Catfish Institute in Jackson, Miss. Mississippi is the nation’s largest producer of farm-raised catfish.

The Catfish Institute is lobbying at state and national levels for stricter labeling laws and health regulations for imported catfish, said president Roger Barlow.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted down a bill to expand trade relations with Vietnam earlier this month, just before President Bush was to visit Hanoi.

The agreement, along with Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization, would make it easier for foreign companies to do business in Vietnam and open up export opportunities for companies there.

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture already has banned imports of some Vietnamese-farmed fish that tested positive for banned antibiotics and chemicals. The Catfish Institute recently told Congress some of those banned additives are now being found in the Chinese catfish.

Corkern said he is confident in what he is serving in his restaurant.

“That’s why we deal with the local farms that we know about,” he said.