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Catfish Industry

Karni Perez, Auburn, Alabama
The catfish industry in Alabama began in 1960 with the opening of a small channel catfish hatchery in Greensboro, Hale County, in west Alabama. Since that time, it has grown tremendously and has gone through many methodological and technological changes. Around 3,000 people are employed in the catfish industry. The counties with the highest production are Dallas, Greene, and Hale, where the catfish capital, Greensboro, is located. After a decline in the early 2000s, the industry has leveled off and is relatively stable. Alabama is one of the leading producers of catfish in the nation, along with Arkansas and Mississippi, the nation's top producer.
STRAL Catfish Harvesting 1966
A number of environmental conditions in the South helped the industry succeed, including a long warm season, appropriate topography, water-retentive soil, and plentiful rainfall and river water to maintain ponds. Economic factors include low energy costs, good transportation systems, and the presence of Auburn University scientists and graduate students with expertise in fisheries. In addition, the channel catfish itself is well-suited for farming. The fish need only be fed once a day, because its large stomach will hold feed for hours, and it is highly adaptable to various living conditions.
The Alabama industry began when Hale County residents Chester O. "Check" Stephens, a feed salesman, and Richard True, a cattle and cotton farmer, decided to try hatching catfish fingerlings (young fish) for commercial purposes. Together with farmer Bryant Allen, they sought information and advice from experts. Researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had succeeded in breeding channel catfish in Oklahoma by injecting hormones into the fish and getting pairs to spawn (lay eggs) while contained in individual glass aquaria. And during the 1920s, fisheries experts in Kansas had helped pave the way for commercial production of catfish by developing hatching troughs and paddle wheels for aerating water in them.
STRAL Harvest
True had two ponds and well water on his farm, and the men obtained brood fish, fertile adult females, and males, and put them in one of the ponds. The men built most of the equipment for their hatchery, including aquaria, spawning baskets, hatching troughs, and paddle wheels. The three men called their enterprise the STRAL Company, using the letters from their last names. Their first attempt at spawning catfish in the summer of 1961, which produced nearly 50,000 fry (newly-hatched fish). By fall, the men needed to find markets for their fish, and Stephens talked about the fish to anyone who would listen as he traveled around selling seed. Word spread quickly and raised curiosity among farmers and the general public about the new venture, and many people wanted to buy the fingerlings to raise themselves or to start their own farms. With little experience in harvesting and transporting fish, the three men almost lost their harvest before it reached customers. Gradually, however, hatchery owners learned better methods. With loans, they bought better equipment and increased their yields.
In 1967, Joe Glover, a Greensboro grocer who had bought and raised STRAL fingerlings, joined True and Stephens to form STRAL Processing Company. They harvested his catfish and skinned, cleaned, and sold them in Glover's meat market. The fish were popular with customers, and the business grew until so many fish were being processed that the men had to build a larger plant. STRAL was the first catfish processing company to skin the fish with a skinning machine. The skinned and cleaned catfish were sold to restaurants, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, and other businesses.
Catfish Farm
In the late 1960s, more and larger hatcheries and processing plants began to enter the business. Fisheries researchers began experimenting with a different way of growing catfish called cage production, in which catfish are raised in cages hanging in ponds. For farmers and other individuals in northeast Alabama, this method of raising the fish turned out to be particularly well suited. Not many farmers had tried raising catfish commercially in ponds there before. Constructing flat ponds that could be harvested with tractor-pulled seines, as farmers did in west Alabama, was not practical in the hilly, northeastern part of the state, referred to sometimes as the Piedmont. Raising the fish in cages that could be accessed easily for harvesting made it possible for farmers in the Piedmont to have an additional source of income. A few farmers in other areas of the Southeast tried cage production also. Although this method proved to be successful in part of Alabama, the cage farmers found that they could not compete with the larger, pond-based catfish industry in west Alabama, which could raise and process the fish more economically. Cage production thus remained a small-scale industry.
As more competitors entered the industry, they became able to produce marketable products much more cheaply than STRAL, and in 1969, Stevens, True, and Glover sold their business to Nebraska Consolidated Mills, the company that later became the agribusiness giant ConAgra. In 1970, Glover started his own processing business, Farm Fresh Catfish Company, which he operated until 1983. He introduced a number of improvements in catfish processing, including the addition of fileting. He also added a quality-control system to prevent fish with poor flavor from being sold and convinced producers to raise fingerlings year-round and not just during the summer. This change in practice made catfish available all year long, a requirement for increasing consumer demand for the fish.
Other factors caused the early industry to struggle, as well. Before the 1970s, catfish were not viewed by the public as good to eat. Each time a new farm opened, the market was flooded with too many fish. The price would then drop so low that some farmers could not make enough money to cover their expenses. When not enough fingerlings were available, they became expensive. In some years, problems with feed production raised the price of feeds so high that farmers either could not afford to feed their fish adequately or went further into debt. Also, as ponds became more crowded, however, water quality declined, and fish began to suffer from diseases. Larger numbers of fish consumed more oxygen and produced more waste, which in turn used up oxygen as it decomposed in the water. Often, this lack of oxygen caused tens of thousands of fish to die, especially during hot summer nights. By the early 1960s, researchers had developed an oxygen meter with which farmers could keep track of the dissolved oxygen in their ponds, but various efforts to better oxygenate the water all failed.
Overcrowding in ponds also allowed diseases to thrive, and parasites and bacterial and viral infections resulted in heavy losses. Farmers treated the diseases with a variety of chemicals and antibiotics. During the 1970s, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared many of these chemicals, including some of the most effective ones such as nitrofurazone and malachite green, unapproved for use in aquaculture because of their potentially harmful effects on the environment, farmers, and consumers. Only a few remaining treatments were approved for use on food fish, mainly just table salt, or sodium chloride, for pond fish and iodine for eggs.
Catfish Die-off
Methods and technology used to hatch and grow catfish changed as the industry grew in the 1970s as well. Farmers changed the construction methods of their ponds and began using machines to help with harvesting. At this time, two Auburn University graduates invented the grading sock, which enabled harvesters to choose what size fish they harvested. And other developments made it possible to harvest year-round and increase supply for consumers. Researchers developed more nutritious feeds that enabled the fish to grow faster, bigger, and healthier, and farmers began stocking their ponds with more and more fingerlings. Around 1975, Lenson Montz, a catfish farmer in Greensboro, and his brother-in-law, Otis Breland, built a paddle-wheel aerator that oxygenated the pond water effectively by creating a powerful current. Fish farmers in Alabama and in other states immediately built their own versions of it, and today virtually every catfish farm has paddle-wheels aeration.
Catfish Processing Plant
Other changes helped strengthen the industry as well. At first, processors competed for customers through price wars, but gradually, processors came together cooperatively and in 1971 began forming marketing associations to promote catfish to consumers generically instead of by brand. In 1983, the Alabama Fish Farming Center was established in Greensboro by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, the Soil Conservation Service, the Agricultural Experiment Stations, and efforts of local citizens. The center's purpose was to serve as a source of information on designing and managing ponds and keeping fish healthy. Around the same time, Alabama farmers organized themselves as a group to try to solve their common problems. They worked with state legislators to develop laws that dealt with the issue of competition from imported catfish and losses to predatory birds like herons and cormorants, which live in large groups around the ponds and feed on the fingerlings. Some of the new laws required that packages of farm-raised catfish be labeled as such, giving consumers the ability to choose Alabama-raised fish over, and others allowed farmers to shoot those birds they observed actively preying on their fish.
Processing plants ranged from small companies operated by individuals or families to large plants, such as Glover's Farm Fresh Catfish Company. Farm Fresh was sold in 1983 to a large meat-processing company and eventually moved out of state. Soon after the sale, Glover's son, Joe Jr., established Southern Pride Catfish Company, based in Demopolis and Greensboro, which became the leading U.S. processor. In 2003, it was sold to multinational seafood processor American Seafoods Group.
In the 1980s, mechanization gained a stronger foothold in the industry. Machinery was used to do much of the harvesting work that had previously been done by hand. Processing became more mechanized, as well as more automated. Fish were tested before they were processed, packaged, and sold, and poor flavor became less of a problem. During the early 1990s, Alabama processors implemented sanitation testing of their plants to assure consumers that the fish they had bought were safe to eat. By this time, catfish had become much more accepted by consumers as a food fish. By 2000, most residents of Hale County had jobs that were related in some way to catfish farming or processing.
In the 2000s, the industry began declining as a result of several factors, including a dramatic increase in feed prices, overall economic recession, and a bacteria strain from China, the Aeromonas hydrophila, that sickened or killed off numerous fish and can sicken humans. The bacteria thrives in warm climates, and global rising temperatures have spurred its spread. Increases in electricity and fuel costs also had a negative impact. Another change that negatively affected sales was the increased size of catfish, causing most processors to reject the fish. The biggest contributor to Alabama's decline in the catfish industry has been competition from Vietnam and China, however. The economic crash of 2008 allowed foreign markets to meet most of the demand for fish, but U.S. exporters have since been promoting the superior quality of Alabama-grown catfish and its better-regulated facilities.
In 2016, the United States produced a total of 363 million pounds of catfish, and Alabama produced one-third of this total, with 120 million pounds. Alabama catfish comprised 34 percent of national sales, at $130 million. New tariffs and the switch in responsibility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has increased regulation against imported catfish products since 2018 but Alabama's production and sales remain level at present.

Additional Resources

Perez, Karni. Fishing For Gold: The Story of Alabama's Catfish Industry. Tuscaloosa: Fire Ant Books, 2006.
Published:  December 11, 2007   |   Last updated:  August 8, 2019