Friday, January 30, 2009

U.S.

Delta Farmers Want Copyright on Catfish

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Published: January 16, 2002

With blue herons circling overhead as fishermen pull in the day's catch, Joey Lowery explains why he is doing battle with the Vietnamese to save his own and other Mississippi Delta catfish farms.

To him, the issue is simple. Vietnam should stop labeling imported basa fish as catfish and thereby end what he calls its unfair piggybacking on an industry built from scratch by farmers here and in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

''We're not protectionists,'' said Mr. Lowery, 38, who carved out 55 ponds on a farm he inherited from his father. ''I've never been against the Vietnamese selling their fish in this country -- I just want them to label them properly and call a spade a spade.''

To Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and celebrated prisoner of war in Vietnam, the issue is equally clear. Just when the United States finally reached a trade agreement with its old and bitter enemy, a clutch of Mississippi Delta farmers got Congress to erect an ''offensive trade barrier.''

''No doubt,'' Mr. McCain said, ''on behalf of several large, wealthy U.S. agribusinesses that will handsomely profit by killing competition from Vietnamese catfish imports.''

In the bruising tug of war over how to manage global trade, few issues cut closer to the bone than agriculture and its cousin aquaculture. On the one side are industrial nations that use farm policy not only to promote their agribusinesses overseas but to protect their markets and farmers at home. European countries have also used their agricultural subsidies to defend the pastoral countryside from the onslaught of urbanization. Working against them are developing countries like Vietnam that are trying to raise their standard of living by breaking into those markets with less expensive products like catfish.

By translating the name of its ''tra'' fish as ''catfish'' rather than ''basa,'' the common English name of that species, the Vietnamese have captured 20 percent of the American catfish market. Tra looks like catfish; tra tastes like catfish.

Since Americans consume 120 million pounds of catfish fillets, that is a lucrative niche. In Arkansas alone, the catfish industry brought in $750 million last year, said Ted McNulty, the state official who overseas aquaculture.

In the fall, Congress sided with delta farmers and temporarily forbade the Vietnamese to use the word catfish on labels. As the Senate prepares to take up the farm bill when it returns this month, it is debating whether to make the ban permanent.

Understandably, the Vietnamese do not want to give up their market.

''We're totally against changing our name,'' said Pham Binh Ninh, deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Vietnam in Washington.

On its Web site, the embassy takes more direct aim at American catfish farmers: ''More than 20 years after their failure during the Vietnam war, they opt to launch a new war, as they declare, not to fight communism, but to combat Vietnamese tra and basa catfish.''

To their frustration, American catfish farmers complain that they are being penalized for doing exactly what the Agriculture Department claims is needed in rural America. They have created a new agricultural industry for faltering farmers who turned their rice and soybean fields into profitable fish farms in one of the poorest regions of the country.

By giving up crops, these catfish farmers also gave up heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, good news for the environment. And they gave up subsidies -- an important goal for lawmakers looking to get the government out of farming.

Above all, the catfish farmers say, they have preserved an important part of the sport-fishing culture of the South, and a culinary staple.

''We've done what we were supposed to do,'' Mr. Lowery said. ''When I stopped plowing and built the fish ponds, I stopped using the chemical pesticides and fertilizers that cause the pollution.''

In his farm in the northeastern corner of Arkansas, Mr. Lowery overseas 460 acres of ponds where he raises catfish along with large carp, which eat much of the algae and help keep the water clean.

On a recent morning, his crew of six fishermen threw out a large seine, or net, and harvested 10,000 pounds of carp to be shipped live to several Chinese restaurants in New York City the next day.

''That's good, tighten the seine,'' Mr. Lowery shouted to the fishermen, who were clothed in wet suits on this windy winter day.

Agriculture inspectors have checked the ponds, and the fish are checked routinely at the processing plants for traces of contaminants. Mr. Lowery said he knew that his counterparts in Vietnam were not put through the same rigorous inspections.

He also said he doubted they were the ones making money from the imports.

''Don't tell me I'm hurting the poor Vietnamese fish farmers,'' he said. ''I know they work to eat and not much more; the money is being made by the middlemen who sell the fish.''

While the catfish farmers won the first skirmish, they have yet to convince the larger agricultural world that the Vietnamese are in the wrong. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration, which sets rules for naming various foods, sought expert help on the catfish question. It consulted Dr. Carl J. Ferraris Jr., an adjunct curator of ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences who specializes in the world's catfish species. He sided with the Vietnamese.

''The F.D.A. wanted some indication of whether there was any justification for limiting the term catfish to North American catfish,'' Dr. Ferraris said, ''and the answer was there's no justification, historically or scientifically, for such a statement.''

But Congress stepped into the debate and ignored the F.D.A., he said.

The catfish case also provoked an unexpected reaction farther north, in the 125-year-old herring-canning industry of Maine. Last fall, the office of the United States trade representative agreed to requests from Maine to join a World Trade Organization protest over a European ban on calling anything other than European sardines by that name.

But the government hastily abandoned its plans to defend American herring exports after Congress moved to back the same kind of ban on labels for imported catfish, said Jeffrey H. Kaelin, who lobbies on seafood legislation.

''Here we are getting stabbed in the back,'' said Mr. Kaelin, who has worked in concert with the catfish lobby in Congress.

And Mr. McCain, who worked for years to bring Vietnam and the United States to normal diplomatic and trade relations, has promised to fight the ban on labeling when the Senate takes up the farm bill debate this year.

''Whether you are a free trader or an opponent of harmful special interest riders hidden in big spending bills, you can't help but find this sort of behavior to be a scandalous abrogation of our duty to the national interest,'' he said.

Lobbying on the sidelines are the diplomats and scholars who have been part of the painstaking effort to bring the former enemies together.

Frederick Z. Brown, an associate director at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, spoke to the Vietnamese delegation that went to sign the trade agreement in Washington in the fall only to be confronted with the ban against labeling their tra fish catfish.

He said the Vietnamese were ''simply baffled.''

''The only way I could explain it,'' Mr. Brown said, ''was this is politics American style.''

Correction: January 21, 2002, Monday A chart on Wednesday with a front-page article about a dispute over the designation of basa fish from Vietnam as catfish mislabeled figures comparing domestic catfish production with imports. The figures denoted pounds, not tons.