Catfish industry saved?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 22, 2003

Thanks to the testimony of two local men, the once-booming catfish industry of Alabama may survive the threat of eventual extinction.

At a hearing before the International Trade Commission earlier this week, David Pearce stood before a panel in Washington, D.C., and explained why tariffs should be levied against a Vietnamese import that has dried the well of many catfish farmers in the southeast.

Pearce, who operates more than 1,000 acres of farm-raised catfish ponds in Browns, told the ITC that his industry has been so hard hit that even his farm has lost an enormous amount of business.

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Pearce joined Randy Rhodes, a spokesman for Southern Pride Catfish in Greensboro and Demopolis, in Washington to discuss a pending tariff against Vietnamese basa fish that are imported into the United States at a much cheaper rate than U.S. farm-raised catfish.

Just a few days before the ITC hearing, the U.S. Department of Commerce recommended that tariffs ranging from 37 to 64 percent be levied against the Vietnamese fish.

While the USDC believes tariffs should be assigned to the Vietnamese fish, it is the ITC that has the final say-so in whether or not that tariff stands.

To Rhodes, the examination by members of the ITC went well. In essence, he felt like catfish processors needed to prove to the ITC that Vietnamese basa fish &045;&045; once passed off as catfish in the U.S. market &045;&045; were not of the same species or the same quality as U.S. farm-raised catfish.

While Rhodes believes representatives from the catfish industry did a good job proving the devastation to the catfish industry, he isn’t sure how the ITC will vote.

Pearce had a little more faith in the testimony earlier this week.

The Local Problem

Nearly three years ago, millions of pounds of Vietnamese basa fish were dumped into the United States. Upon import, sales representatives for the Vietnamese producers labeled the fish as catfish and sold them at a cheaper rate than the cost of U.S. farm-raised catfish.

Almost immediately, U.S. catfish farmers felt an enormous blow. Farmers like Pearce lost some of their most dependable buyers because there wasn’t as much of a demand for farm-raised catfish. The Vietnamese fish, being passed off as the same fish as a U.S. farm-raised catfish, saturated the market with catfish filets.

Members of the Catfish Farmers of America &045;&045; of which Pearce formerly served as president &045;&045; began a political battle to change the way the Vietnamese fish were imported and sold.

Nearly two years ago, a group of U.S. catfish farmers visited Vietnam to see for themselves how the basa fish were raised. They came back horrified.

According to those farmers, the basa fish were raised in rivers and underneath houses. They were raised on junk from the bottom of the river.

However, the basa fish had a similar taste to that of the U.S. farm-raised catfish (though those close to the industry would vehemently argue otherwise.)

Eventually, enough farmers raised enough noise that southern politicians got involved. U.S. Sen. Jeff Session led a charge to change the labeling practices of the Vietnamese fish in the United States. Whereas the fish once were labeled in grocery stores as "catfish," U.S. law now dictates that they be labeled "basa."

The labeling change was the first big hurdle for the catfish industry. Getting these tariffs passed by the ITC is the next struggle.

What the Politicians Say

Sessions, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis have all fought hard to make sure the catfish industry can sustain itself in Alabama.

Sessions said the Vietnamese imports have caused "a huge problem" for local farmers, and he believes some sort of tariff must be levied.

Shelby also praised the USDC for its decision.

Davis, a freshman congressman who represents Alabama’s Black Belt, knows there is still a battle that hasn’t been won.

For his home district, Davis said he understands the importance of this issue.