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Catfish Production Up, Prices, Pounds Down
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Catfish processing in the state and country is up this year, but production is not as cool weather in the growing season means the fish are smaller.
Nationwide, catfish processing is up 12 percent from September 1996 with 43.5 million pounds processed in September. But the industry is expected to run short of large catfish by spring, given the numbers being processed now and the amount of feed gotten into the catfish.
Jim Steeby, district extension agent for aquaculture in Belzoni, said catfish producers never fully recovered from lost growing time caused by cool spring temperatures. Delta growers also faced worse than usual bacterial disease problems this year.
"Most producers I've talked to haven't got as much feed into their fish as they did last year," Steeby said. "We estimate they are 5 to 8 percent behind last year, so our average weight is probably going to be smaller and our total pounds is going to be somewhat less."
Typically, the bulk of catfish processing occurs from January to May, but 1n 1996, their was a large fish shortage by March. This year, Steeby predicted a shortage by February.
"We just didn't get as much feed in the fish this year, so we'll end up processing some smaller fish by spring," Steeby said.
Catfish grow in the warm weather between mid-April and mid- October. During the cool months, catfish are fed a maintenance diet until harvest or the next growing season.
This year, a cool, wet spring extended about a month into the normal growing season. Mississippi producers never fully recovered from the shortened growing season.
Jeff Terhune, area extension aquaculture agent in Noxubee County, said a slightly later onset of cool weather in October helped production. However, this was offset by a week of cool snaps in August and September which interrupted the catfish's growth.
"We pretty much called off the growing season in mid-October and we're going into a winter feeding schedule," Terhune said. "Right now, we probably have smaller fish overall because we did not get near as many pounds on the fish as we should have."
Growers in East Mississippi faced another problem -- processing facilities haven't been available when they need them. Not only did producers have to maintain market-ready fish, but smaller fish could not start growing on schedule.
"We do not have the ability to move fish at will," Terhune said. "Some producers here have had fish ready to go to the market since July. We're having to ship to Arkansas, North Carolina and Alabama to get our fish processed."
The extra cost of shipping catfish to these processing plants is made up by slightly higher prices being paid at the distant locations, Terhune said.
In the Delta, growers are getting 65 to 67 cents per pound for whole catfish. In September, prices stood at 69 centers per live pound, down one cent from August, and down eight cents from September 1996. Prices are slightly lower in East Mississippi, with growers getting 65 cents a pound. Retail prices may increase this spring depending on when the industry runs out of large fish.