Butch Wilson, an Alabama catfish farmer and past president of the Catfish Farmers of America, says the trends in the industry are forcing farmers to innovate and diversify in order to remain competitive in a global marketplace.

“I’ve lived every one of these trends on my farm,” said Wilson, who in recent years has diversified operations and updated technologies on his Dallas County farm. He now raises tilapia in addition to catfish and has moved portions of his operation indoors to keep up with the industry’s latest technological advances.

Since peaking in 2003, the U.S. catfish industry has been shrinking. American consumer preference for the fish declined from sixth among the top 10 fish and seafood products in 2009 to ninth in 2012.

The recently released 2013 U.S. Catfish Database compiled by Auburn University aquacultural economist Terry Hanson paints a grim portrait of the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry overall, but a few bright spots, particularly for Alabama producers, are sprinkled throughout the report.

The acreage devoted to catfish farming in the U.S. continued its steady decline in 2013 and is now down 62 percent, or 121,135 acres, from its peak in 2002. Meanwhile, imports of frozen catfish fillets increased by 44 million pounds in 2013, to 281 million pounds, accounting for 78 percent of all sales of frozen catfish fillets in the U.S. Imports in 2013 were nearly 10 times what they were just eight years ago, while the number of pounds of U.S. catfish processed is down nearly 50 percent from that same year.

“Though the majority of the news for the U.S. catfish industry is bleak, 2013 did bring slight increases in both pounds processed, up 11 percent from 2012, and total producer income, also up 11 percent over the previous year,” said Hanson. “We are encouraged by these signs that the industry may be stabilizing.”

And, the news for Alabama’s catfish farmers is slightly better than for those in other states. Though the acreage devoted to catfish farming in the state has decreased steadily since 2004, Alabama has seen the lowest rate of decrease of the top catfish-producing states. In addition, while feed purchases have dropped dramatically in other states, signaling a sharper decline in the industry, Alabama’s feed purchases have remained relatively stable.

Looking to the future, Hanson says some trends will likely continue, while others may see a sharp change. While the market share of imported fish and seafood will continue to rise, overall consumption of seafood products will keep to its downward trend unless efforts are made to educate Americans about the nutritional benefit of eating more fish. The increase in feed prices over the past few years has led to a lower in-pond catfish inventory in the U.S., which will result in a supply shortage in 2014. As of February, processors were paying much higher prices per pound for U.S.-raised catfish than just a year earlier, a positive trend Hanson hopes will continue at the production, processing and retail levels.

“If producers are able to invest these profits to improve infrastructure, adopt new technologies and reduce production costs, then U.S. farm-raised catfish will compete favorably with inexpensive imported products,” Hanson said.  

Hanson, associate professor and Extension specialist in the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, has provided the annual catfish database for the last 15 years.  Much of the information in the report is a historical compilation of data provided by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture. Dave Sites of Mississippi State University is co-author of the 2013 report.