Southern catfish processors learn from Alaska Sea Grant

Catfish ponds on the Mississippi Delta.

As far as the eye can see in the Mississippi Delta it’s catfish ponds. Alaska Sea Grant’s Chris Sannito recently toured several catfish processing plants near the ponds, at the invitation of researchers looking to improve efficiencies at the plants in Mississippi and Alabama.

“Catfish farming is king down there,” said Sannito, a research assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and a seafood technology specialist.

The Mississippi plants Sannito visited have workforces of 50 to 350 employees, and are well outfitted with modern equipment, he said. They are located in Tunica and Itta Bena.

Sannito was able to advise processors on how to further their in-plant automation.

Catfish ready for processing.

Peter Bechtel, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Orleans, invited Sannito to the Mississippi Delta to share his expertise in seafood processing technology. Bechtel and Sannito knew each other when Bechtel held a USDA position in Fairbanks and Kodiak several years ago. Bechtel is now assisting the catfish industry in the South.

“Chris provided the catfish processors with insight into the common fish processing practices used in Alaska,” said Bechtel.

At its peak in 2005 the catfish industry was valued at $450 million in annual production, but crashed to half that in response to a surge of imported catfish from Vietnam and high feed costs. “They’ve been slowly recovering since then and they see great potential in their ability to grow the industry,” said Sannito.

The catfish plants he toured are similar in size to Alaska seafood plants but the industries have a major difference. “They are farming the fish, where we are at the mercy of the wild fishery and we don’t know what is around the corner. They know exactly how much they are going to harvest and the growth rates. It is a different way of doing business,” Sannito said.

During his time in Mississippi, Sannito gave a talk at an informal conference in Stoneville hosted by the Mississippi State University Delta Research and Extension Center. Organizers brought in Sannito and other experts to share information on advanced processing technologies.

Live catfish are emptied from holding tanks before processing.

“They are looking for that holy grail in seafood processing to do away with the trimming person. The technology is getting to the point where there is now a machine that can filet, Xray the bone pattern and use water jets to trim out bones. This almost replaces the human worker,” he said.

Fresh catfish filets are the common processing end-product. They are very popular with consumers, who like to serve them battered and fried.

The new machines are very high speed and very expensive, Sannito said. Just last year Baader, a manufacturer of food processing machinery, released a machine into the marketplace that has been years in development. The catfish processors are really looking at efficiency. Alaska plants have a lot of automation as well and there are a lot of similarities in the machinery in Alaska and Mississippi, he said.

“I hope I opened their eyes to some of the latest technology out there,” Sannito said. He has been working closely with manufacturers through the Alaska Seafood Processing Leadership Institute that he teaches, and at the Pacific Fisheries Technologists Conference in Alaska this year.