ATLANTA -- 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 U.S., where they're sometimes billed as Asian catfish. Sometimes they're even labeled Delta grown.
That's the Mekong Delta, not the Mississippi.
American-bred catfish -- mostly farmed in the Southeast U.S. -- 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 U.S. catfish superiority.
Meeting recently in Atlanta to promote American-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 50 cents and a dollar per pound cheaper.
While the federal government predicts that 560 million pounds of American 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 24 million pounds of Vietnamese basa and tra have been shipped to the U.S. this year, doubling last year's total. And catfish imports from China have almost tripled, rising to 4.1 million pounds 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, Miss. "And that trend is troubling."
To environmentalists, who consider catfish among the greenest of seafoods, the foreign surge is a cause for concern.
While Vietnamese breeds are often trapped in net-pen systems that can tax natural resources, the U.S. fish are raised in closed ponds that reduce the risk of spreading disease and have a minimal environmental impact.