It is being suggested that Vietnamese pangasius producers follow the example of Thai shrimp farmers and pay off their U.S. counterparts, money that would otherwise go to the U.S. government in the form of antidumping duties. In return, U.S. catfish farmers, like U.S. shrimp fishermen, would stop lobbying their government to erect trade barriers in the first place.
Whether this suggestion is at all serious is open to interpretation, but what is not open to interpretation is the plight in which Vietnamese pangasius producers now find themselves.
The decision that the two pangasius species — Pangasius bocourti and Pangasius hypophthalmus farmed in Vietnam and exported to the United States in increasing quantities — must legally be regarded as catfish could have far reaching repercussions. Legislation included in the U.S. Farm Bill now going through the first stages of implementation will bring catfish imported into the United States, including pangasius, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture rather than the Food and Drug Administration, as it is now.
The change is scheduled to take place in 18 months. Because international agreements on food inspections typically take two to five years to negotiate, the switch may mean Vietnamese pangasius imports are barred while negotiations proceed.
But, more seriously, it could mean that pangasius must be farmed in Vietnam using the same methods and standards employed to farm channel catfish in southeastern United States. This would effectively bar pangasius imports all together, as these conditions could not be met.
For example, U.S. catfish are reared in shallow ponds containing drilled well water, in which pangasius would not survive even if it was available; pangasius are farmed in surface water from the Mekong River. Furthermore, U.S.-raised channel catfish are fed a totally different diet than that fed to pangasius in Vietnam; the breeding method is also different.
The first draft of the Farm Bill will soon be published. It will be open to public comment for six months and then receive its first reading in Congress after that. If the bill does become law, then it is hard to determine how pangasius could survive in the U.S. market.
Now, of course, the U.S. channel catfish industry has been fighting tooth and nail to prevent imported pangasius from competing with its product.
According to a 2003 law, Vietnamese pangasius can’t be called “catfish” in the United States. This was a nonsensical decision, since pangasius species are scientifically classed as catfish. So, Vietnamese exporters, probably in cohorts with their U.S. importers and distributors, simply called the fish pangasius, or one of the recognized English names such as basa or swai.
Secondly, of course, there were the tariff barriers enacted after the U.S. Department of Commerce said that pangasius was being “dumped” on the U.S. market — in other words, being offered for sale in the United States at below the cost of production in Vietnam. There is perhaps justification for this view in some instances — there is good evidence that prices at which some suppliers are offering pangasius for sale in the United States today are far too low for the producers to make a profit.
On the other hand, some pangasius producers are deliberately trying to target to a higher end of the market. In fact, one of the finalists in the foodservice category for the International Boston Seafood Show 2010 Seafood Excellence Awards, announced on Friday, is Splash! Coated and Crusted Swai from Clear Springs Foods.
The U.S. government has imposed antidumping tariffs on seafood exports from various countries — starting with whole farmed Atlantic salmon from Norway around 20 years ago — so often that it makes one suspicious that these barriers are erected purely to protect domestic producers from competition.
However, despite all these measures, protectionist or not, Vietnamese pangasius — or catfish as we must learn to call it (again) — exports to the United States have not only survived but have prospered. Last year, Vietnam exported 41,609 metric tons of pangasius worth USD 1.34 million to the United States, up by more than 70 percent in both volume and value compared with 2008.
Now this trade could completely disappear, and not only would the Vietnamese pangasius industry suffer a serious blow, but the American consumer would be prevented from purchasing a competitively priced whitefish in a time of economic hardship.
- Mike Urch, SeafoodSource contributing editor