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Catfish Profile

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by Dan Burden, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University,

Revised February 2008 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.

Channel catfish are one of the most important freshwater species cultured in the United States, particularly in the South. Farm-raised catfish are the fourth most popular fish or seafood consumed in the United States; only shrimp, tuna and cod are more popular.

Wild Catfish
The wild distribution of channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) extends from the St. Lawrence and its tributaries in Quebec, southwest of the Appalachian Mountains, to southern Georgia and Central Florida, west through the Gulf states to eastern Texas and northern Mexico, northwest through the eastern part of the states from New Mexico to Montana, east to the Red River system in Manitoba, southwestern Ontario, southern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and through Ontario and Quebec.

Preferred habitat for channel catfish includes lakes and larger rivers in slow to moderate current over sand, rubble or gravel bottoms. They mostly hunt and scavenge at night, and seek shelter in bottom structure or debris during the day. Young channel catfish feed primarily on aquatic insects while adults eat a wide variety of both plant and animal matter. Spawning behavior begins as water temperatures approach 75°F, with males taking an active role in maintaining and guarding the spawning site. A single female may produce up to 30,000 eggs.

Farmed Catfish
Under culture conditions, channel catfish may reproduce naturally in culture ponds or be spawned and reared in captivity, with the resulting fingerlings released into ponds for grow-out. Optimal temperature for maximum growth of channel catfish is 85°F. The pH should remain at neutral (7.0), while dissolved oxygen levels should be maintained above 5.0 ppm.

The typical production system consists of levees that form above-ground ponds four to six feet deep of 10 to 20 water surface acres. Development of a special diet has greatly improved the taste of the finished product, eliminating the “fishy” or “muddy” flavor that used to be commonly associated with pond-reared catfish. To ensure freshness, the fish are seined from the ponds and sent to the processing plants in aerated tank trucks. Processing plants produce a variety of wholesale offerings including whole fish, strips, nuggets, steaks, fillets and pre-marinated and breaded products. Properly processed and frozen, farmed catfish will retain excellent product quality for two to four months.

As of January 2008, 155 thousand acres of ponds were devoted to the rearing of catfish. That number is down 6 percent from the 164 thousand acres used a year earlier. Inventory numbers also declined for most categories of catfish, including broodfish, large foodsize, medium foodsize, small foodsize, large stockers and fingerlings. The number of small stockers did increase, but only by 2 percent.

Catfish growers in the United States had total sales of $445 million during 2007, down 8 percent from the previous year. The four top states--Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana--accounted for 94 percent of the sales. The 2007 sales total of all foodsize fish (which excludes broodfish, stockers and fingerlings) reached over $400 million, dropping 10 percent from 2006 sales.

The quantity of farm sales in 2007 was down from 2006, with farm prices averaging $0.79 per pound. Catfish sales by farmers to processors are expected to continue lower into 2008, compared with sales a year ago, but are expected to increase to 2006 levels.

Processor sales of catfish peaked in 2003 at 319 million pounds and have declined since then. In the past, when the volume declined, the average price rose, offsetting the fall in quantity. However, both the quantity and average price for processor sales of catfish were lower in 2007.

The combination of a large jump in imports and higher inventory levels pressured 2007 prices downward at both the farm and processor levels. If processor inventories remain below 2006 levels, prices may drift upward during the peak demand period, the first quarter of each year.

During November 2007, fresh catfish fillet exports totaled 97 thousand pounds, with 71 thousand pounds going to Canada and the rest to the Netherlands. No exports of frozen catfish fillets were reported for that month.

Imports of frozen catfish increased throughout 2007 but slowed considerably in early 2008, likely in response to declining U.S. prices. Almost all of the imported fish is frozen fillets.

The overall outlook for catfish producers and processors for 2008 is mixed. On one hand, imports have dropped considerably and processor inventories are falling. If these trends continue, prices may rise in 2008. On the other hand, catfish growers and processors face a number of issues. With corn and soybean meal prices skyrocketing, feed costs are expected to rise. In addition, energy prices will be higher. Imports of competing seafood products, and the general health of the economy and its impact on restaurant sales will also affect consumer demand for catfish.

With respect to marketing, there is optimistic outlook for channel catfish market growth. New or prospective producers should not assume there will be a willing buyer at harvest time. Most current catfish production is sold to large processors, and new producers may be too far from a processor to economically market their catfish through this low-premium conduit. New processing plants that locate in areas with little existing production and rely on promises of new production may fail within the first few years. The reasons for these failures are as follows: (1) overcapitalization and limited cash flow; (2) harvesting and logistical problems in transporting fish to the processing plant; (3) inconsistent fish supplies; and (4) established producers in the area who already have specialty markets for live fish that offer better prices. Also, generally, it takes 18 months in construction and production time for a farmer to produce his first crop of fish. For this reason, the availability of financing capital or high interest rates may limit the development of new production acreage, as well as make it more difficult to compete with existing processors for market share. Even in areas with established production and processing, farmers should continually investigate new markets. Perhaps limited in size and availability, these markets can be more profitable than wholesale sales to processors. Alternative markets include live-haulers, on-farm sales, fee fishing and local sales. (Source: Channel Catfish Production.)


Channel Catfish Production, Aquaculture Network Information Center, USDA.

Aquaculture, Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook, ERS, USDA, 2007.

Catfish Production, NASS, USDA, 2008.

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