Restaurants see diminishing catfish supply

TUNICA, Miss. (AP) — Bill Battle’s new crop of fish at his catfish farm in Tunica should be ready to eat come midsummer.

Until then, Battle, who also owns the Pride of the Pond catfish processing plant, has had to cut back production at the facility until his Mississippi farm-raised catfish supply is replenished.

“We can process 300,000 pounds of catfish a week at full capacity,” he said. “We’ve gone from full capacity of five days a week at the plant, to four days a week as we wait on the new fish crop. We have not had to lay off any workers, but have had to cut the hours of our employees as we ride out this shortage.”

It takes about two years for catfish to grow big enough to harvest, and industry experts say the catfish shortage should end by June or July. American catfish farmers like Battle and some area restaurants in DeSoto County say the shortage can’t end soon enough.

John Woods’ Catfish Creek Restaurant has been open a month in Southaven.

For Woods, who also owns First Choice Catering, this is his second foray into the catfish restaurant business.

In 1991, he owned the popular Catfish Corner restaurant in Horn Lake.

When his catering business took off, Woods sold Catfish Corner in 1997.

Now that he is back in the restaurant business, he said it feels like catfish deja vu.

“When I first started in the restaurant business in 1991, there was a catfish shortage, and prices started to escalate,” he said.

In 1991, he said prices were at $2.80 per pound. Today, catfish cost $4 to $5 per pound on the wholesale market, he said.

“Catfish per pound is almost the price of a ribeye steak,” he said. “But we were prepared for the price increase because when we decided to open the restaurant the price of the fish was already on the rise.”

Woods’ new restaurant does not have an all-you-can eat catfish buffet, a staple at many Southern restaurants. He has grilled, fried and seared catfish fillet dinners by the plate, and even has a catfish dish named after him.

“I think the time or era of the all-you-can-eat catfish buffet is over with,” he said. “I don’t see where a restaurant owner can continue to do all-you-can-eat buffets with the prices like they are.”

He said some restaurants across the country have dealt with the rising costs of catfish by using less expensive foreign-raised fish from Vietnam and other Asian countries.

But not him.

“We are committed to cooking Mississippi pond-raised catfish at my restaurant and with my catering business,” he said.

Woods said Pride of the Pond and his supplier, Simmons Catfish in Yazoo County have some of the best catfish, and customers know the difference between domestic catfish and the foreign kind.

In fact, new state laws in Tennessee and Mississippi now require restaurants to tell their customers where they get their catfish.

Boiling Point Restaurant owner Charlie Wiggins proudly tells his customers that his catfish has an American birth certificate.

“Sysco is our supplier, and we have a long-term agreement with them,” Wiggins said.

The only sign you will see about the catfish at his Southaven restaurant is the one that informs customers that the catfish is not available on that particular day.

“When catfish has not been available for the lunch buffet we do use a mild, white fish as a substitute, but only on the buffet,” he said.

He said the restaurant also had to raise the price of its catfish dinners from $7.95 to $8.95.

“The shortage is affecting us, but we are going to wait it out until the end,” he said.

Mississippi leads the nation in catfish production, with Alabama hot on its heels.

Over the last few years, there has been a catfish shortage because of rising grain prices to feed the fish and because many U.S. catfish farmers have gone out of business, deciding to fill in their ponds and raise crops like soybeans instead of fish.

In Mississippi, catfish acreage has fallen 40 percent since it peaked at 113,000 acres in 2002.

Catfish processing was down 37 percent in March 2011 compared to March 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The decrease has resulted in catfish producers getting paid $1.07 per pound in March, 28.7 cents higher per pound than they got at the same time last year.

Battle, whose family has been in the catfish farming business since 1969, said his business has been spared the woes other farmers have faced because his family operates its own feed mill company as well as its own processing plant.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

The Associated Press