They don't look too much like catfish. They don't taste like them, either -- at least to catfish connoisseurs. But Vietnamese basa and tra fish often fool consumers in the US, where they're sometimes billed as Asian catfish. Sometimes they're even labeled Delta grown.
That's the Mekong Delta, not the Mississippi.
US-bred catfish -- mostly farmed in the southeast -- dominate the world market, but the region's farmers are on the defensive against growing foreign competition of basa and tra, cheaper breeds that threaten US catfish superiority.
Meeting recently in Atlanta to promote US-bred catfish, industry leaders voiced their frustration with how Chinese and Vietnamese farmers have been nibbling away at their customers with prices that are between US$0.50 and a dollar per pound cheaper.
While the federal government predicts that 252 million kilograms of US farm-raised catfish will be processed this year, a drop of 15 percent from three years ago, foreign rivals are making up ground.
More than 10.8 million kilograms of Vietnamese basa and tra have been shipped to the US this year, doubling last year's total. And catfish imports from China have almost tripled, rising to 1.8 million kilograms of frozen fillets, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"It's been increasing," said Jimmy Avery, a Mississippi State University professor who leads the National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Stoneville, Mississippi. "And that trend is troubling."
Another spike looms if the US agrees to a pact that would permanently normalize trade relations with Vietnam, which US President George W. Bush discussed this week with Vietnamese executives during an eight-day trip to Asia. Although the two countries have a bilateral trade agreement, US companies cannot take full advantage of Vietnam's entry into the WTO unless the trade bill passes.
The agreement along with Vietnam's entry into the WTO would require the country to slash tariffs and trade bar-riers, making it easier for foreign firms to enter its market while opening up export opportunities for Vietnamese firms.
The plan is expected to pass Congress, although the Catfish Institute, a Jackson, Mississippi-based group, has tried to stave off a deal by questioning the presence of banned chemicals in the foreign fish.
"While Asian seafood imports are growing rapidly, federal inspections and testing of this food remains inadequate, at best," said Roger Barlow, the institute's president, who is trying to build a "catfish caucus" in Congress to support his cause.
Catfish farmers have fought back before to protect their share of the nation's top aquaculture product, a resilient fish that spawns easily and can survive fairly drastic temperature swings.
Unfair trade complaints in 2003 led to antidumping restrictions that cut in half the number of basa and tra imports. The same year, Congress passed a law preventing the Vietnamese basa from being labeled "catfish."
More recently, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama -- where most catfish are farmed -- have issued alerts that call for strict inspection of some catfish imports after antibiotics showed up in some samples. And a federal law passed that requires sellers to slap "made in" stickers that show where fish are caught.
To environmentalists, who consider catfish among the greenest of seafoods, the foreign surge is a cause for concern.