The high cost of grain to make catfish food, fuel costs to haul and harvest fish, plus foreign competition all have combined to force a downsizing in catfish farming in Mississippi.
Belzoni still calls itself the catfish capital of the world, but the virtual inland sea of catfish farms between Belzoni and Isola is gone. Where the ponds once stood is now either back in production with other crops or just left to grow up in weeds, like this pond near Isola. It's hard to find a single pond. Dick Stevens, chief executive officer of Consolidated Catfish in Isola says the industry is still producing a quality product and will continue to do so, as a smaller business.
"It's gonna re-invent itself. A lot of changes in production methods, a lot of changes in processing," said Stevens. "Over the long haul I think we are going to have a viable industry, much smaller than we were in the past."
Steve Anderson, executive director of the Catfish Museum in Belzoni, summed up the business this way.
"The catfish industry is having a tough time right now. We are declining in the number of catfish farmers, we have less catfish farms every year, it's going down."
The county agent in Humphreys County, Preston Aust, says catfish production is down about 60 percent in his county in the last three years.
"I guess when they get to the grocery store and they see catfish at $4.50 a pound, and they look across and they can buy sirloin steak for $5.00 a pound, they are not choosing catfish as often.
To show you how the business has declined, this plant at Isola, once employed 1,200 people processing catfish. It's now down to about 400.