Commerce Department to protect Alabama’s catfish industry

Published 7:47 pm Thursday, March 21, 2013

By KATIE WOOD / Selma Times-Journal

Last week the Commerce Department made the decision to protect Alabama’s catfish industry by enforcing fair value pricing on Vietnamese imports of frozen fish filets and non-market economies. The decision was made after several months of concentrated effort from the Congressional delegation led by U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who urged the Commerce Department to review the low-priced Vietnamese imports.

“Domestic production and fair value pricing are essential aspects of a sound economy,” Sen. Sessions said. “This decision is a step in the right direction to protect U.S. workers and our catfish industry in Alabama.”

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Sessions noted that the dramatic catfish production decrease over the last decade can be directly attributed to unfairly priced imports, leaving local catfish farms at risk.

“The Commerce Department’s decision to use Indonesia as a surrogate country for Vietnam helps correct unfair competition and ensures that jobs and industry in our state are protected,” he said. “By enforcing our nation’s trade laws, and fostering an environment that requires healthy competition, I am confident that our local catfish farms will again be a market leader.”

The Commerce Department had previously been using Bangladeshi data to set the market price for Vietnamese producer’s fish fillets despite industry proposals for a surrogate nation with higher quality data available such as the Philippines or Indonesia. The Bangladeshi prices range from $0.29 per pound to $0.43 per pound while the U.S. price for catfish is about $0.80 per pound.

Rick Oates, Alabama Farmers Federation catfish commodity director, said the department’s decision to use Indonesia as a surrogate country for Vietnam was not only a good decision but also the right decision for both catfish farmers and American consumers.

“As you know, [the Commerce Department] was previously using data from Bangladeshi, which allowed Vietnamese fish to flood the market at artificially low prices. This has had a dramatic affect on the price of Alabama and U.S. farm raised catfish and resulted in a significant decline in the market share held by a U.S. grown and processed product,” Oates said.

To put things in perspective, Oates explained that in 2007, U.S. catfish farming covered almost 164,000 water acres, and currently there are only about 83,000 acres of catfish ponds. That same year, catfish processors sold 104 million pounds of fish, he said. And by 2012 the number was reduced to about 67 million pounds, more than a 35 percent reduction.

“Catfish farming is a vital part of the economy in west Alabama. Approximately 5,800 jobs are dependent on the industry and it contributes $158 million to Alabama’s economy,” Oates said. “We know the quality of fish raised in the U.S. is consistently better and safer than fish not subject to the strict standards we have. Therefore, we know when consumers purchase U.S. farm raised fish they are getting a safe product. Unfortunately, with the low number of inspections done on imported fish, quality and safety problems often go undetected and unsafe food can be introduced into our food chain.”

Oates said he agrees with the decision by the Commerce Department to use the more realistic and reliable data from Indonesia, which will protect American consumers and catfish farmers.

“When Americans buy U.S. farm raised products, we all win; from the farmer to the consumer and all of the jobs provided in between,” he said.