State catfish farmers net $9 million in stimulus fund

By: Dana Beyerle – Montgomery Bureau Chief –

MONTGOMERY | Help arrived Tuesday for Alabama catfish farmers reeling from high feed costs that have made it harder to compete with foreign fish imports.

State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said 141 aquaculture farmers — most of them in West Alabama — got a total of $9 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $50 million national stimulus to offset the cost of fish food.

‘Numerous aquaculture producers suffered from financial hardships during 2008 due to increased feed prices,’ Sparks said. ‘These funds will provide assistance to producers within the aquaculture industry.’

Hale County catfish farmer Bill Kyser got about $100,000 to offset last year’s feed costs, which have been increasing due to events mostly out of his and other farmers’ control.

Kyser, whose farm employs 14 people, said the subsidy will help. He said feed costs last year totaled $2 million. ‘Feed is close to 50 percent of our costs,’ he said.

Hale County is the No. 1 producer among six or seven West Alabama Black Belt counties where catfish is an important part of local economies. Alabama is second to Mississippi in U.S. catfish production.

Mitt Walker, director of the catfish division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said prices of soybeans and corn, main ingredients in fish food, are up dramatically for a growing and important Alabama industry.

‘The five-year average cost of feed has been around $230 per ton, and last year we saw the average price up closer to $400,’ Walker said. ‘That has been a significant burden on those guys.’

Commodity grain trading, higher standards of living in Asian countries that are demanding more meat that is raised on grain and diversion of corn into making biofuels all contribute to increased prices.

That’s good for grain producers, but bad for domestic farmers, who are competing with Asian fish imports. Domestic catfish farmers say Asian fish are cheaper because of much lower wages, government subsidies and almost non-existent food quality standards in Asia. Asian fish are not raised under strict environmental and food purity laws, as required in the U.S. Some catfish from Vietnam and China have tested positive for chemicals and antibiotics banned in the U.S., according to the Farmers Federation.

Kyser said Asian catfish sells for about $1 per pound less than domestic catfish. Domestic producers have to nearly match the import price or they can’t compete.

‘We’re kind of exposed here, there’s no protective trade structure to speak of,’ said Jesse A. Chappel, an assistant professor and extension specialist in the Auburn University aquaculture department.

‘We have to get more efficient and get better at what we do to protect ourselves,’ he said. ‘Of course, fish and shellfish and aquaculture is a new business on the scene and it’s a good, environmentally friendly business, but nonetheless we’re vulnerable in the world market.’

Earlier this year, Gov. Bob Riley signed a bill by Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Gallion, that requires restaurants to indicate the country of origin of catfish. Country-of-origin signs or table placards are provided to restaurants by the catfish industry. The signs inform customers that domestically grown fish is safe to eat, Walker said.

Catfish sales peaked at $5 billion nationally in 2000, according to the USDA, and foreign ‘dumping’ of cheaper fish has been blamed for the decline of domestic sales to $4.1 billion last year.

Alabama catfish sales were nearly $93 million last year, down from a high of $101 million in 2004.
About 2,700 Alabamians work in the catfish industry, according to the Alabama Farmers Federation, and aquaculture production, which includes fish farming, had a $500 million impact in Alabama in 2005.

The state’s leading counties in catfish production from largest to smallest are Hale, Greene, Dallas, Perry and Marengo. Lee, Pickens, Tuscaloosa and Barbour have minor operations.

Can Volunteer Water Monitors Make a Difference, a Case from Lake Wedowee

(Article as pdf – for printing)

Residents of Lake Wedowee, in Randolph County, became concerned about the health of their lake more than a decade ago, and many members of the Lake Wedowee Property Owners (LWPOA) became certified water monitors under the Alabama Water Watch Program (AWW). Water monitoring began in 1998, and since then the LWPOA has submitted 1,179 water chemistry records and 359 bacteria records to the AWW statewide online database. LWPOA volunteer monitors currently test water quality at 19 sites on the lake and its two primary tributaries, the Big Tallapoosa and Little Tallapoosa rivers (see map below). 

LWPOA water monitoring sites on Lake Wedowee and the Big Tallapoosa and Little Tallapoosa rivers in Randolph County. Green dots are active monitoring sites, and red dots are inactive sites (map taken from the AWW website,

Spurred by a growing concern about bacterial contamination of the lake from several possible point and nonpoint sources (including septic systems, waste water treatment facilities, campgrounds, and nonpoint source runoff from poultry and cattle rearing operations), several LWPOA monitors received training and certification in bacteriological monitoring from AWW in March 2006. Charles ‘Sut’ Smith, former LWPOA board member and Coordinator of the Upper Tallapoosa River Basin Clean Water Partnership Committee (UTRBCWPC), and Jack Duncan, LWPOA board member and LWPOA Water Testing Committee Chairman, drafted a bacteriological sampling plan to test for levels of E. coli at 22 sites throughout the Lake

Wedowee Watershed (see map below).  The initial phase included bacteria testing on Lake Wedowee proper from the dam forebay back to upper lake boundaries.  The lake water was generally E-coli free and met ADEM’s Water Criteria for Swimming and Other Whole Body Water Contact Sports (Pathogens).

The second phase of E-Coli testing focused on the two rivers and tributary streams feeding Lake Wedowee. This phase was done as a project of the UTCWPC to evaluate non-point source pollution entering the watershed streams. More than 100 samples, in triplicate, were collected and analyzed using the AWW Bacteriological Monitoring protocol throughout the 2006 growing season (April-October).  The following results from obtained from the study:

  • the highest E. coli levels (up to 8,250 colonies/100 mL of water) occurred in the Little Tallapoosa River just upstream of the Alabama-Georgia state line,
  • high levels of E. coli were also measured in Wedowee Creek (up to 2,786 colonies/100 mL of water) and in the Tallapoosa River (up to 506 colonies/100 mL of water), and
  • the sources appeared to be from nonpoint source runoff because high levels of E. coli were detected following rainfall/runoff events.
Map showing sites in the Lake Wedowee Watershed that had harmful levels of E. coli during the 2006 growing season (sites in red had > 600 colonies/100 mL of water, sites in yellow had 200-600 colonies/100 mL, sites in green had < 200 colonies/100mL).

 After completion of this tremendous effort and collection of results showing the bacteriological ‘hotspots’ in the Lake Wedowee Watershed, Sut Smith communicated his findings to ADEM. Missy Middlebrooks, ADEM Senior Environmental Scientist, invited representatives from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA EPD) to a meeting in Wedowee to discuss the citizen findings in November, 2006. At the Upper Tallapoosa River Basin Clean Water Partnership meeting, Sut Smith presented the bacteriological findings of periodic high E. coli concentrations in the Little Tallapoosa to representatives from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA EPD). The extremely high concentrations recorded at the state line inspired the GA EPD to action.

After the meeting, GA EPD, Carroll County, the City of Carrollton and the Rolling Hills RC & D Council initiated action to apply for federal 319(h) funds to address the bacterial contamination problem in the Little Tallapoosa River.  The GA EPD awarded a $900,000 grant in January of this year for a three-year watershed project to clean up the Little Tallapoosa River. The project addresses septic tank repair/replacement/maintenance, strategic installation of on-the-ground agricultural best management practices on impaired stream segments, and follow-up water quality monitoring to verify reductions in fecal coliform concentrations (including E. coli) in the river and its tributaries. Representatives from the Rolling Hills RC & D Council recently returned to Wedowee and gave a presentation on the watershed project, and remarked that one reason for doing this project was the citizen bacterial monitoring conducted by LWPOA, along with coordination with ADEM and the Upper Tallapoosa River Basin Clean Water Partnership.


Former LWPOA board member, Charles ‘Sut’ Smith, measures Secchi Disk Visibility of the lake (left), LWPOA water monitors undergoing periodic recertification in AWW water monitoring technique (center), and LWPOA Water Testing Committee Chairman, Jack Duncan, reading dissolved oxygen level from his dock on the lake.

For details on the LWPOA watershed-level bacteria study and lake water quality monitoring, go online to (click Monitor Resources, then Publications to see the group’s publication titled Citizen Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring of Alabama’s Reservoirs – Lake Wedowee), to (read about LWPOA in a World Wildlife Fund-sponsored publication titled Community-Based Water Quality Monitoring Data Credibility and Applications), and to (click Click here to go to original TWP Project to read about LWPOA side-by-side water monitoring with Auburn University researchers in the TWP Final Report: 2006-2007). Thanks to a good, data-rich nudge from our ever-vigilant AWW water monitors, the waters of Lake Wedowee and the Tallapoosa River are being cleaned up so that we can all safely enjoy them – GREAT JOB LWPOA and UTRBCWP!

Clear Water Alabama seminar

On October 28th and 29th, the Alabama Erosion and Sediment Control Partnership will held the 2009 Clear Water Alabama Field Day in Bessemer, Alabama. The field day will highlight many erosion and sediment control practices and give participants a chance to observe and discuss many on-site practices.  Some of the practices include new sediment basin technology that reduces the suspension of sildenafil soil particles in water, called turbidity.

Click here to see a brochure and registration info for the 2009 seminar.

To see about the 2008 Field Day click here.

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