by Leah Presser/Louisiana Seafood News
Some downbeat numbers add up to a delicious break for Louisiana’s wild-caught catfish.
U.S. farm-raised catfish sales in 2012 were down 20 percent from 2011 . In Louisiana, sales by catfish farmers were down 56 percent in 2011. High feed and fuel costs have been driving farmed catfish production down since 2003.
Increasingly, catfish farmers are drying up their ponds to plant more profitable corn and soy crops instead. Louisiana catfish ponds totaled a mere 890 acres in 2011, down 36 percent from 2010 .
“The delta is losing ponds by the day,” said Harlon Pearce, owner of Harlon’s LA Fish in Kenner, La.
These numbers are cutting, but don’t think the American catfish’s soul is filleted just yet. Even as catfish farms are shutting down, Louisiana’s wild catfish is a natural, sustainable resource swimming in to fill the void.
In 2011, over four and a half million pounds of wild catfish – equal to the average weight of 18 blue whales – were caught commercially in Louisiana streams, rivers, lakes, and backwaters, bringing $2.3 million dollars into the state. Compare that with the $2.6 million dollars of Louisiana farm-raised catfish sales the same year, and you begin to see the wave of popularity Louisiana’s wild catfish is riding.
“The economics are back on the side of the wild catfish,” Pearce said. “Before the ponds [on catfish farms], there was only the wild catfish. Then with the ponds, lower prices displaced the wild. Now with the ponds having problems, wild catfish is making a comeback.”
Pearce, who is in the process of expanding his catfish operations, estimates that Harlon’s LA Fish will process a million pounds of whole, wild-caught catfish this year, based on the thriving business he’s experienced in the past six months.
Taste and Price Advantages
Wild-caught catfish enthusiasts swear by its preferable, exceptional flavor. Some attribute the better taste of the wild catfish to its natural diet of insects, snails, crawfish, aquatic plants, and small fish.
“The amazing thing is that they have an inherently buttery taste,” said Poppy Tooker, New Orleans chef, culinary activist, and author. “In the little fillets sold, you can actually see a deep golden color. That translates into buttery flavors.”
Tooker has long been an advocate of local foods and traditions, and was responsible for Louisiana’s wild-caught catfish being recognized on the International Slow Food Ark of Taste, a catalog of over 200 foods threatened by industrial standardization, large-scale distribution regulations and environmental damage. Only the best-tasting, sustainably produced foods make the list.
“People now are looking for quality,” said Sherbin Collette, owner of Collette’s Seafood in Henderson, La. “They want something that tastes good.”
And they come to Collette’s Seafood to get it. In Collette’s small shop where he and his wife are the only employees, there’s a waiting list to buy the 150-400 pounds of catfish they catch in the Atchafalaya Basin and process each week.
Wild catfish sells cheaper than farm-raised fish. Farm-raised prices can fluctuate between five to eight dollars per pound, whereas wild catfish prices hold steadily around four dollars per pound.
As the new wild catfish representative on the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, Collette intends to promote wild catfish’s taste and price advantages by marketing to hospitals, schools, and other state-run facilities.
If the state were to buy wild catfish, Collette says, it would put a lot of fishermen back to work, employ more people at processing plants, and save the state money by buying cheaper fish.
A Way of Life
“Wild catfish is a perfect example of something that’s true of most of Louisiana fishery,” Tooker said, “It is not the seafood itself that is endangered. It’s the fishermen and their way of life.”
The skill and expertise necessary to perfect the many different ways to catch catfish is often passed down from generation to generation.
Centuries ago, Native Americans taught fishermen what is still today’s most commonly used method. It is done using a hoop net – a long, cylindrical net with hoops spaced along its length to keep it open. The end of the net is baited. Fish are taken in when the net is raised out of the water.
Joey Fonseca, owner of Outlaw Katfish Co. in Des Allemands, taught the fishing methods he learned from his father to his own three sons. His daughter delivers their catch to buyers, just like Fonseca delivered his father’s catfish to New Orleans restaurants over 40 years ago.
His sons have all taken up commercial fishing as a way of life, using hoop nets to catch catfish. Fonseca leaves the catfish fishing to them while he fishes other seafood and serves as the business’s salesman.
“We like to keep it a small-scale, high-quality oriented operation,” Fonseca said. “It helps to keep it a family affair if I’m not out there competing with them.”
Fonseca has been fishing since he was 12 years old. He makes a steady living at it now, selling directly to restaurants and buyers at farmers markets. Like much of the bayou way of life, there seems to be no rush to change, no hurry to try to cash in on the wild catfish’s rising popularity.
“If I sell my catfish and keep a few high-quality restaurants as customers, I need no other incentives,” a content Fonseca said.
It takes about 25 Louisiana fishermen like Fonseca to supply Harlon’s LA Fish with the wild catfish Pearce processes and sells to restaurants and retailers. Some fish are delivered directly to the facility, while others are bought right off the docks. Since catfish can be caught nearly year round in Louisiana, they are always fresh.
“Sometimes the fish are still breathing when they get here,” Pearce said.
Collette – who started fishing at age 12 and says that in high school, he was making more money than some of his teachers – supplements his income by serving as mayor of Henderson, a small fishing community in St. Martin’s parish.
But as catfish farms continue to dry up and more consumers discover the superior taste of wild catfish, future demand will need to be met. And Louisiana fishermen such as Fonseca and Collette will be there, as they always have been, to provide.
“If I could make a living at it now, I would do it,” said Collette. “Fishing was my first love.”
Look for the “Certified Authentic Louisiana Wild Seafood” Label
Look for the label “Certified Authentic Louisiana Wild Seafood” to guarantee the highest quality wild catfish. Farm-raised catfish should be labeled as a product of the United States. Imported catfish should be labeled with the country it came from and will be called pangasius, basa, swai, or tra to distinguish it from U.S. catfish.
 United States Department of Agriculture
 Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry
 Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry
 LSU AgCenter’s Louisiana Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which compiles data from several sources into unofficial reports.