August is National Catfish Month, and in addition to eating plenty of U.S. farm-raised catfish, Arkansans can learn a little about the history of the industry in the state, according to Larry W. Dorman.
Dorman is an Extension aquaculture specialist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Catfish commercial production
Commercial production of catfish began in the mid-1960s, when production took place in large earthen ponds, in many cases 40 acres and larger, he said. Fish were stocked at densities of around 1,500 to 2,000 fish per acre, which are very low compared to modern stocking rates.
“One-year old fingerling catfish were stocked, and the fish were fed for nearly two years before being harvested and processed,” Dorman said. “The desired harvest size was 2.5 pounds and larger. Producers had little supplemental aeration available to keep fish alive when oxygen levels in the ponds were low.”
Processing was done by hand at small-scale, family-run facilities. A few larger processing plants were established in Arkansas at locations near Brinkley (Fargo), McGehee and Dumas. These businesses failed because of a lack of consistent fish supply to ensure year-round plant operation, according to officials.
Dorman said processed fish were sold as catfish steaks, usually 1/2 to 3/4 inches in thickness, depending on the customer’s preference. The product was made by slicing through the backbone of a fish with a band saw or meat cleaver and was then rolled in cornmeal and deep fried.
“The product had a few unfavorable qualities, including the presence of bones (vertebrae) and the accumulation of fat around the vertebrae,” he said. “When catfish were ‘steaked,’ there were two undesirable pieces produced. The first steak behind the head contained a bone and did not have very much meat. The ‘tail piece’ steak was often very thin and also lacked much meat. Many people today still prefer steaks, though the product is harder to find.”
Catfish industry grows
The mid-1970s and 1980s saw the phenomenal growth of the catfish industry, Dorman said. Production intensified, with stocking rates increasing to 5,000 to 7,000 fish per acre. Pond sizes also became much smaller, ranging in size from 10 to 20 acres.
For the fish farmer to survive, supplemental aeration became essential. Most producers had permanent aeration rates at 1 horsepower per acre and owned mobile aeration units for emergencies.
“The invention of the automatic fillet machine transformed the industry during this time,” Dorman said. “This machine could do the work of dozens of people. Processing plants became very large, with the capacity to process well over 80,000 pounds of fish per eight-hour shift.”
With the higher stocking rates in use, the average fish size was much smaller, and the sale of catfish steaks became impractical, he said. The catfish fillet became the choice product for the consumer. Producers could now grow fish to market size (around 1 1/4 pounds) in much less time.
“The fillet product is very versatile and can be used in any recipe requiring a flakey, white fish,” Dorman said. “Fillet sizes include 2-3 ounce, 3-5 ounce, 5-7 ounce and 7-9 ounce fillets. The larger fillets can be divided into smaller cuts referred to as ‘strips.’”
Starting in the early 2000s, producers lost many acres of catfish ponds due to poor economic situations and competition from abroad. However, the industry still managed to intensify production, growing greater quantities of fish on fewer acres. Revolutions in the industry at this time included the use of intensive aeration and split ponds.
“Intensive aeration involves the use of much smaller ponds – around 6 acres and under – plus heavy aeration of up to 8 horsepower per acre,” Dorman said. “This technology allowed for heavier stocking rates of around 8,000 to 12,000 fish per acre.”
A split pond is a catfish pond that is partitioned into two parts – one area, usually about 15 percent of the pond’s total size, contains the fish, while the other area has no fish and serves as a water treatment space. During the day, water is circulated from the catfish production area through the water treatment area. At night, water circulation ceases and the fish-containing unit is aerated.
“The split pond system ensures that only the small area containing the fish is aerated, rather than the whole pond,” he said. “Fish are stocked at 8,000 to 12,000 fish per acre of the unit as a whole. A 10-acre unit would be stocked at 80,000 to 120,000 fish, even though the fish are in only 15 percent of the total acreage of the pond.”
Dorman said Arkansans can celebrate National Catfish Month by trying out different catfish recipes in the late summer. He recommends the USDA Mixing Bowl recipe for skillet catfish.
“With this recipe, catfish fillets should be coated in a spicy cornmeal rub and pan-fried until browned to perfection,” he said.
Skillet Catfish recipe
Ingredients: For the spice rub — 1/8 cup cornmeal, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 teaspoon paprika, 1/2 teaspoon salt,
1/2 teaspoon black pepper; 4, 4-ounce catfish filets, 2 teaspoons vegetable oil and 1 lemon or lime (quartered).
Directions: 1. Make the spice rub. Put the cornmeal, oregano, cayenne pepper, thyme, paprika, salt and pepper on a plate and combine well.
2. Dredge both sides of the catfish in the spice mixture. 3. Put the skillet on the stove and turn the heat to high. 4. When the skillet is hot, add the oil. Add the fish and cook about 4 minutes on each side, until browned and cooked throughout. 5. Serve right away garnished with lemon or lime wedges.
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.
— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.