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U.S. catfish growers face growing global competition

They don't look too much like catfish. They don't taste like them, either - at least to catfish connoisseurs. But Vietnamese basa and tra fish often fool consumers in the United States, where they're sometimes billed as Asian catfish. Sometimes they're even labeled Delta grown.

That's the Mekong Delta, not the Mississippi.

American-bred catfish - mostly farmed in the Southeast United States - dominate the world market, but the region's farmers are on the defensive against growing foreign competition of basa and tra.

Meeting recently in Atlanta to promote American-bred catfish, industry leaders voiced their frustration with how Chinese and Vietnamese farmers have been nibbling away at their customers with prices that are between 50 cents and a dollar per pound cheaper.

While the federal government predicts that 560-million pounds of American farm-raised catfish will be processed this year, a drop of 15 percent from three years ago, foreign rivals are making up ground.

More than 24-million pounds of Vietnamese basa and tra have been shipped to the United States this year, doubling last year's total. And catfish imports from China have almost tripled, rising to 4.1-million pounds of frozen fillets, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Another spike looms if the U.S. agrees to a pact that would permanently normalize trade relations with Vietnam, which President Bush discussed with Vietnamese executives during an eight-day trip to Asia. .

The agreement along with Vietnam's entry into the WTO would require the country to slash tariffs and trade barriers.

The plan is expected to pass Congress, although the Catfish Institute, a Jackson, Miss., group, has tried to stave off a deal.

"While Asian seafood imports are growing rapidly, federal inspections and testing of this food remains inadequate, at best," said Roger Barlow, the institute's president.

To environmentalists, who consider catfish among the greenest of seafoods, the foreign surge is a cause for concern.

"Where we go as a globe in terms of dealing with these issues will be driven by what's happening in China," said George Leonard, a scientist with the Seafood Watch program at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

"We need to work at what we do here so U.S. practices can be models," he said during a catfish conference in September at the Georgia Aquarium.