Commercial Catfish Production
Catfish is the leading aquaculture industry in the United States. Commercial catfish production generates over 46 percent of the value of aquaculture production in the United States. From the first commercial production in ponds in the 1960s, catfish production has grown rapidly to reach annual sales of 660 million pounds in 2003. The value of the catfish crop in the United States reached $425 million in 2003. Mississippi, in accord with its acreage, reported the greatest value (approximately $243 million in 2003).
The rapid growth of the catfish industry in the 1980s and 1990s led it to become one of the most important agricultural activities in states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana. The combined production acreage of these four states makes up 94 percent of all catfish production acreage. Mississippi has had more acreage in catfish production than the other three states combined and has held this position since the late 1980s. The catfish industry generates an economic impact of billions of dollars and is the primary source of economic activity and employment in a number of Mississippi counties.
The two major catfish-producing areas in Mississippi are 1) a relatively well-defined geographical area of the Mississippi River alluvial valley in northwest Mississippi that is commonly referred to as the "Delta" and 2) a less well-defined area of east-central Mississippi.
In 2004, the Delta region accounted for 86 percent (85,600 acres) of the total land area devoted to catfish in Mississippi. The land is remarkably flat, with elevations of 100 to 150 feet above sea level. Most catfish ponds in the region are constructed on soils with a high clay content. Water for filling catfish ponds is pumped from the Mississippi River alluvial aquifer. Wells range from 50 to 250 feet deep. The topography and the availability of a high-yielding groundwater source are ideally suited for construction of "embankment" or "levee" ponds. After ponds are initially filled with ground water, water levels are maintained by inputs of precipitation and pumped water.
Most catfish ponds in east Mississippi are located in the western portion of the Blackland Prairie soil region which extends from just south of Montgomery, Alabama, to the west of Columbus, Mississippi, and ending near Tupelo, in northeast Mississippi. These soils also have a high clay content but differ from Delta soils in that they often overlie soft limestone, chalk, or marl. Elevation ranges from 75 to 300 feet above sea level and the land is nearly flat to moderately sloping.
High-yielding aquifers in the Blackland Prairie are considerably deeper than the alluvial aquifer along the Mississippi River, and this is reflected in water-use patterns and pond types in the region. About half the ponds in east Mississippi are watershed-type ponds that use rainfall and storm runoff for filling and maintaining water levels. The rest are embankment-type ponds or hybrid watershed-levee ponds, but nearly all use water pumped from nearby streams or other surface water supplies.
Low prices received by producers in 2002 ($0.57/pound) and 2003 ($0.58/pound) have caused economic hardship for Mississippi producers resulting in a decrease of 10,000 acres since 2002. While catfish prices improved in 2004, higher catfish feed prices and increasing fuel prices mostly negated gains. Declining feed prices coupled with fish prices that have returned to the 5-year and 10-year average monthly price ranges could lead to a better financial future for catfish producers.
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