Babe's, a Roanoke-based restaurant chain, has dropped fried catfish from menus at eight of its 11 restaurants in North Texas because of dwindling supplies of the regionally popular, farm-raised fish.
Its supplier, America's Catch, a Mississippi-based fish farm and processor, confirmed that it has curtailed production. It's operating four days a week instead of five because independent farmers that sell to it have decreased pond acreage or quit the industry.
"I received 10 percent of our normal delivery a week ago, and on Monday I was supposed to get a third, but got 8 percent," said Rainer Bantau, who handles vendor relations for Babe's and supervises four of its Texas restaurants.
The shortages prompted Bantau to focus dwindling catfish supplies received by Babe's to its Cedar Hill outlet and to the chain's two other format restaurants, Sweetie Pie's Ribeyes in Decatur and Bubba's Cooks Country in Dallas.
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"This dire shortage has really come about in the last three months," said James Avery, an aquaculture extension professor at Mississippi State University.
A combination of cheap imports, high prices for corn-based catfish feed, high fuel costs and, until recently, low market prices for fish has made fish farming a money-losing proposition for many producers, Avery said. Then the recession has kept people from dining out, and much farm-raised catfish is consumed in restaurants, he said.
Bantau said he could purchase Chinese or Vietnamese catfish, but Babe's only wants to sell the U.S. farm-raised variety.
The chain's original store in Roanoke has never offered the cornmeal-battered, fried dish, he said.
"We had previously tried [imported catfish], but being a Texas chain we'd prefer to use as little imported food as we can. We like supporting American producers."
Restaurants trying other suppliers aren't finding much.
"There's plenty of demand, but just not much supply," said Greg McMillon, owner of Farm Catch Catfish Processors in the East Texas town of Hughes Springs.
"Last year, we ran about 25 million pounds of catfish. This year we're on pace to do about half that. We do expect the supply situation to improve this summer."
As a result of the shortages, Farm Catch is filling orders with "our prime customers and telling everyone else we can't supply them right now," McMillon said in a telephone interview.
So what will restaurants that can't get U.S. catfish do?
"I would guess they will switch to an imported fish -- channel cat from China, or bassa from China or Vietnam," he replied.
Solon Scott of America's Catch said the company is trying to raise as many of its own catfish as it can, but it can't acquire more from other fish-farming operations to meet demand. And many farmers are leaving the industry.
"Grain prices have gone up so high that it makes growing crops more profitable. We've gone through these cycles before, but this is more extreme," Scott said.
Some restaurant chains have escaped the problem.
"We continue to get domestic catfish," said Ken Vaughan, who supervises six Flying Fish restaurants owned by Dallas-based 8.0 Management.
"We have agreements with the best suppliers in the country, both based in Mississippi. We don't anticipate any interruptions. I know they are not taking on new customers. They are taking care of us."
In December alone, U.S. processors shipped 16.8 million pounds of catfish. Imported catfish matched that with 16.9 million pounds -- a whopping 44 percent increase over December 2009, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture figures released Feb. 22.
In the past 10 years, imports of different varieties of catfish from Cambodia, China, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have soared from 9.2 million pounds to 137 million, according to USDA figures.
Meanwhile, U.S. catfish production has dropped in the past decade from about 630 million pounds to 471 million, as marginal farmers left the business, followed by larger operations. Avery figures half the U.S. catfish pond acreage has been taken out of production.
Aside from foreign competition, the near-doubling of grain prices made fish farming unprofitable for many producers, since feed represents 60 percent of costs, Avery said.
Domestic catfish shortages have driven up prices paid to farmers from as low as 75 cents a pound to as high as $1.05. But even at this new level, producers might still only break even because of higher fuel and feed costs, he said.
"If catfish were profitable, we'd still all have the acreage we had in 2001," he said.
"We've seen a myriad of options for this land -- row crops, pasture or using it for duck hunting or put in land conservation programs or wetland reserves."
Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718