Just a few years ago, catfish were king in Mississippi. The catfish farming industry provided desperately needed jobs, improved local economies in relatively small southern towns, employed nearly 11,000 people and contributed about $550 million to the national economy. Catfish were truly a boon to much of Mississippi, where about 60 percent of the nation’s catfish were raised.
“People were making a ton of money. It looked limitless,” observed Mississippi State professor Craig Tucker. Unfortunately, the industry was anything but limitless. In the early 2000s, the catfish industry was booming, but by 2008, it had crashed right along with the national economy. This came as a surprise to most since this type of aquaculture is not usually considered highly reactive to economic swings. “The decline kind of caught us by surprise,” said Tucker, who now works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
What Happened to the Catfish Craze?
So, did everyone just get tired of eating catfish? Not at all. In fact, the fish remains extremely popular to this day. However, you might not actually be eating catfish when you order it on the menu. In the mid-2000s, cheaper white fish became available from Asia. These species, including the Vietnamese swai and tilapia, are often marketed on U.S. menus as catfish. Although catfish farmers complained these fish are raised in “cesspools” in many instances, the lower price of these white fish combined with the rising cost of catfish farming led many restaurants to opt for the less expensive fish option and simply mis-market it.
The results have been devastating in Mississippi. Belzoni, Mississippi, which once boasted more millionaires than any other city in the state and is the self-proclaimed “Catfish Capital of the World,” now has a 9.1 percent unemployment rate and a median household income just over half of the statewide median income. The labor force in the area is less than half the size it was 15 years ago, and most residents simply do not pay their property taxes. This has placed the mayor in the position of “having to beg for money” to fix roads and fill potholes, she said.
Belzoni rose to prominence in the 1970s when Mississippi was struggling to fill the void left behind when textile industries left the area. Local farmers converted fields to fish ponds while the catfish industry worked determinedly to “rebrand” catfish from bottom-feeders to “farm-raised delicacy.”
“The transformation is still regarded as a modern marketing marvel,” said U.S. News senior reporter Andrew Soergel of the process. The question for Belzoni today, however, is, “Can they do it again?”
“The catfish industry has a massive impact on the poorest areas of the United States [the Mississippi Delta,” said Solon Scott III, president of America’s Catch. His company is located about 26 miles of Belzoni and both farms and processes the fish. “We have got a lot of really good people, but this is a very hard complicated business,” he added. Scott believes his industry’s impact on “adjacent sectors” like grain, farming, and construction will ultimately keep catfish farming in the U.S. alive.
Tell us what you think:
- Vietnamese farmers filed a grievance with the World Trade Organization when FDA officials began screening “catfish” imports. Is the screening the right thing to do?
- How can a community like Belzoni best improve its local economy? Is it time for something new?
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