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Battle Of The Bottom Feeder: U.S., Vietnam In Catfish Fight

Workers gather catfish into large nets at a fish farm in Doddsville, Miss. The fish are placed in large tanks of cold water and shipped to a processing plant.
Jackie Northam
Workers gather catfish into large nets at a fish farm in Doddsville, Miss. The fish are placed in large tanks of cold water and shipped to a processing plant.

Bill Battle peers through the window of a pickup truck at his catfish farm, Pride of the Pond, near Tunica, Miss. The land is pancake-flat, broken up by massive ponds, some holding up to 100,000 pounds of catfish.

Cormorants fly low over the ponds, keeping an eye out for whiskered, smooth-skinned fish. Battle keeps a shotgun in the front seat; business is hard enough without the birds cutting into his profit.

Battle has been catfish farming for more than three decades. Catfish has always been popular in the South, but its popularity took off throughout the country in the 1980s. Battle says they could hardly build ponds fast enough to keep up with the demand.

But he has watched with alarm over the past decade as Vietnam has flooded the U.S. market with its own, cheaper catfish, forcing him to cut back on production. "At one time, I was 3,000 acres. Now I'm basically about 1,200 acres of water," he says.

Ben Pentecost, president of Catfish Farmers of America, says Battle is not alone — the Vietnamese imports have affected the whole domestic market. "Our industry peaked at 660 million pounds live-weight fish. And this last year I think we did 300 million pounds," he says.

Vietnamese imports now make up 60 percent of the U.S. catfish market, which has helped drive more than half of the American catfish farms out of business, says Pentecost.

And U.S. catfish farmers have serious food safety concerns about the Vietnamese fish, which they say are raised with antibiotics in polluted water, Pentecost says.

Workers clean and flash freeze catfish at the Pride of the Pond processing plant near Tunica, Miss.
Jackie Northam / NPR
Workers clean and flash freeze catfish at the Pride of the Pond processing plant near Tunica, Miss.

Le Chi Dzung, the head of the economic section at Vietnam's embassy in Washington, D.C., vigorously disputes that his country's catfish are not safe.

"We understand that the American consumers have very high standards, and our ... farmers understand that," he says. "And we have been working with them to make sure that the regulations are met, the issues are addressed."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is tasked with checking the catfish imports. But the American catfish farmers have been pushing the Agriculture Department to implement its own more stringent inspection program. Dzung says if the USDA inspection program is implemented, it would be an unjust trade barrier.

At any other time, this could be nothing more than just a trade spat between two former enemies — ones that have been mending relations over the past decade. But catfish has become an issue at a sensitive time in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The TPP is intended to bring together the economies of a dozen Pacific Rim nations, including the U.S., Japan and Vietnam.

Ernie Bower, an Asia specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the catfish issue is "emblematic of the fact that trade issues get very local, very quickly."

Bower says the catfish dispute puts the Obama administration in a difficult position. According to private documents on WikiLeaks, U.S. negotiators working on the TPP are already finding it hard to make their case on issues such as intellectual property rights, environment and labor. Bower says the administration may want to protect the American catfish farmer, but sees a TPP agreement as absolutely vital to American competitiveness.

"If we don't do the TPP, we are literally on the bench as Asia organizes itself for 21st-century growth," he says. "And make no mistake, they could do it without us."

Dzung doubts that the catfish dispute will be a deal-breaker in TPP negotiations. But he says Vietnam imports large amounts of beef, pork and soybeans from the U.S., and that if the USDA does begin the inspection program, Vietnamese leaders would have a hard time explaining it to their people.

"We cannot go back to them and say, well, we should open our market to American products, [if] at the same time we are seeing the possibility of our catfish export to the U.S. stop, just like that ... and thousands of jobs ... will be gone," he says.

Negotiators hoped to have the TPP trade deal wrapped up by the end of the year, but that's not going to happen. There are still many outstanding issues — like catfish — that need to be resolved.

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Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.