A shortage of catfish to meet consumer demand last year gave catfish farmers their first profitable year in a long time. It also came with a downside.

According to an Auburn University-Mississippi State University (MSU) report, the shortage caused many seafood buyers to buy lower-priced imported catfish or turn to alternative fish species to meet their needs, exacerbating foreign competition that has sunk the U.S. catfish industry’s fortunes for the last decade.

The price paid by processors to catfish farmers averaged $1.18 per pound in 2011, after averaging just 78 cents a pound for the previous four years. The price continued to rise through early 2012, reaching $1.25 per pound in January.

Now, catfish prices are starting to take another dive, just as the cost of feed is about to go up due to this year’s drought. The latest national price average reported by USDA in May was $1.04 per pound.

For some farmers, the recent price recovery is too little, too late.

Wanda Hill, a catfish producer near Belzoni, Miss., the self-styled catfish capital of the world, estimates about half of the catfish farmers who were in business five to 10 years ago have gotten out, and she’s about to join them.

“The price is going down again, but the price of feed and fuel isn’t going down,” Hill said.

“We’re slowly phasing out,” she added, a process that takes time because of having to find someone to buy the inventory of fish.

Hill says she and her son, Wayne, who farms with her and serves on Mississippi Farm Bureau’s aquaculture committee, have dried up about half of their pond acreage. She says ponds all across the Mississippi Delta that used to be filled with fish now have grass, trees, soybeans and other crops growing in them.

Nationally, U.S. pond acres devoted to catfish production have plummeted from the 2002 high of almost 197,000 acres to last year’s approximately 90,000 acres.

Catfish is the sixth-most consumed fish or seafood product in the U.S. and, actually, consumption is increasing.

The U.S. catfish industry is based mainly in the Southeast with its warm climate, flat topography, clay soils good for holding water and vast network of rivers and other freshwater sources. Mississippi is the leading catfish producing state.

The industry grew from the 1960s through the 1990s. However, as more American consumers got hooked on eating catfish, overseas producers ramped up and started angling for their share of the market.

Imports have grown from 20 percent of catfish sold in the U.S. in 2005 to a whopping 76 percent in 2011.