Catfish farmers fight back

  • Business
  • Sunday, 13 Jul 2003

By Christina Toh-Pantin

On the Hau River in southern Vietnam, catfish farmers are waging a trade war with the country’s old foe, the United States. 

The fish, popular with southern Vietnamese, suddenly became a major export for the communist state after a trade pact with the United States went into effect in December 2001. 

Barely a year later, Washington slapped tariffs of up to 64% on Vietnam’s frozen catfish fillets after American catfish farmers accused the country of dumping and the government of subsidising its industry. 

The measure stirred cries of outrage from Hanoi, which is trying to reform the nation’s state-run economy and lift millions of people out of poverty. 

Fish farmers are fighting back and have found ways of getting around US trade curbs as well as securing new markets in the lucrative trade. 

Mai Ngoc Han, 30, has adapted quickly to the fickle export market, which earned Vietnam US$13mil (RM49mil) from sales of frozen catfish fillets to the United States in 1999 and more than US$55mil (RM200mil) last year, before the tariffs were imposed. 

His wood-planked boat houses underwater tanks that now teem with bright orange and black speckled snapper. He has cut back farming tra and basa fish, the local varieties of catfish. 

Clutching the hand of his wide-eyed toddler son, he shows off the 10,000 splashing fish penned within the river by the farm boat. 

He is the only snapper farmer on the river, he says. 

“We started out with catfish and switched as this is easier to farm and they don’t die very often,” he said. 

He can sell snapper for 28,000 dong per kg (RM7), more than twice the 12,000 dong per kg (RM3) for catfish. 

Agifish, Vietnam’s only listed catfish exporter and one of the largest in the country, has adapted by selling breaded or whole fish rather than frozen fillets to America. 

Those categories are not covered by the tariffs. 

“We had to export other products other than those prohibited by the US,” Nguyen Dinh Huan, deputy general director of Angiang Fisheries Import-Export Co, told Reuters. 

The tariff threats sent Agifish’s stock to a life low of 23,300 dong (RM6) in February, down 23% from its May 2002 listing price. 

Agifish, which relies on America for nearly 40% of its exports, has also targeted other markets, such as Hong Kong, Canada and Mexico. 

An emerging customer is Europe. 

In the spotless, fluorescent-lit Agifish factory in Long Xuyen city, 200 km from Vietnam’s commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City, boxes packed with “Pangasius Fillets” are stamped with the name of a Netherlands buyer. 

Agifish, which earned 533bil dong (RM129mil) in revenues last year, and targets lower sales of 450bil dong in 2003, is also lifting the profile of catfish locally. 

Huan, a 50-year-old electrical engineer by training, says a research team is producing recipes for 100 basa dishes. 

A short stroll from Agifish’s main office to the river banks sees farm boats docking to unload their fish. 

Sixty tonnes of fish arrive each day at a factory where the fish are killed before a short trip to the filleting plant. 

Some of the catch comes from small farmers like Pham Van Nhan, 53, a stocky, baseball-capped operator of one of the farm boats that are designated Agifish suppliers. 

Nhan says business is still fine. 

His low-tech operation, manned by no more than five workers, tends to 160,000 catfish in eight open-topped underwater tanks. The ratio of labour to product and low costs are two reasons why Vietnam’s fish products are competitive, Agifish says. 

Agifish’s Huan said increased global competition meant fish farmers faced a battle to survive. 

But he said decades of battles for Vietnamese independence had honed the people’s skills to face newer economic opponents. 

“We understand war very well,” he said. – Reuters 

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