Labor shortages limit catfish supplies in Mississippi

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Even though production was hampered in 2020 due to the pandemic, Mississippi produced 317 million pounds of catfish, which was only 0.6% lower than the 2016 production. (File photo by MSU Extension Service)

JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – According to the Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension Service, many restaurants in the state that serve catfish have had to pay their distributors more to keep the dish on their menus in 2021 or go without. Leaders said pond inventory is not the primary issue, but they said labor shortages at processing plants are more to blame.

Industry data show processing is down 9% for the first five months of 2021 when compared to the same period in 2020.

“I think labor shortage is the big driver in this number. Although there is some talk about tight fish supply, there are no numbers to support it,” Jimmy Avery, Extension aquaculture professor at the Mississippi State University Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville said. “When supply gets tight either due to low pond inventories or processing shortages, processors shift available product types and volume to long-time customers with high volume and price.”

May fish prices for premium sized fish to farmers was $1.25 per pound, according to the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, which is nine cents more than the annual average of $1.16 in 2020 and four cents more than the 2016 average.

MSU aquacultural economist Ganesh Kumar said the slow recovery in the industry’s processing phase can be attributed to several factors related to COVID-19, which includes limits on how many people could work during the same shift while maintaining social distancing, as well as processors finding enough workers willing to work for pay comparable to stimulus checks and unemployment benefits.

Kumar said he is still optimistic about the industry’s prospects.

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