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COVID-19 put brakes on state’s catfish sales

By Bonnie Coblentz | MSU Extension Service

Cash flow challenges are the latest struggle for Mississippi catfish producers, as product sales to their biggest consumers – restaurants – are way down due to COVID-19.

“Even though prices are relatively stable, it has no meaning when producers are unable to sell their products,” said Ganesh Kumar, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University’s Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville. “Sales lost due to COVID-19 related closures are irrecoverable.

“Sales lost to restaurants has a downward effect on the supply chain. Eventually, fish inventory builds up in ponds, and producers spend more money on maintenance feeding, increasing the cost of production,” he said.

Catfish packed for sales to restaurants are difficult to repackage for sales to grocery stores and other retail outlets. This problem made it difficult to quickly tap the increasing demand at the retail sector, resulting in processing sales significantly lower in April and May of 2020.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that the U.S. catfish industry generated about $379 million in sales in 2019, of which $226 million originated from farms in Mississippi. U.S. consumption of seafood, which includes catfish, is 16 pounds per capita annually, up from 14.7 pounds in 2016. U.S. catfish accounts for 0.56 pound of this amount.

The significant slump in sales to restaurants is contributing to another challenge facing the catfish industry: finding adequate markets for very large fish. The longer fish are held in ponds, the bigger they get. Not only does this cost money in feed, reducing profit, but it produces a fish with filets too large for traditional markets.