They don't look too much like catfish. They don't taste like them either -- at least to catfish connoisseurs. But Vietnamese basa and tra often fool consumers in the U.S., where they're sometimes billed as Asian catfish. Sometimes they're even labeled delta-grown.
That's the Mekong Delta, not the Mississippi.
American-bred catfish -- mostly farmed in the Southeast -- dominate the world market, but the region's farmers are on the defensive against growing competition from basa and tra, cheaper breeds that threaten U.S. catfish superiority.
Meeting recently in Atlanta to promote American-bred catfish, industry leaders voiced their frustration about Chinese and Vietnamese farmers' ability to nibble away at their market with prices as much as $1 a pound cheaper.
The federal government predicts that 560 million pounds of American farm-raised catfish will be processed this year, 15% less than three years ago. Foreign rivals are taking ground.
More than 24 million pounds of Vietnamese basa and tra have been shipped to the U.S. this year, double the 2005 total. And catfish imports from China have almost tripled, rising to 4.1 million pounds of frozen fillets, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"It's been increasing," said Jimmy Avery, a Mississippi State University professor who leads the National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Stoneville, Miss. "And that trend is troubling."
The Catfish Institute in Jackson, Miss., has questioned the presence of banned chemicals in the foreign fish.
"While Asian seafood imports are growing rapidly, federal inspections and testing of this food remains inadequate, at best," said Roger Barlow, the institute's president, who is trying to build a "catfish caucus" in Congress to support his cause.
Catfish farmers have fought back before to protect their share of the nation's top aquaculture product, a resilient fish that spawns easily and can survive drastic temperature swings.
Complaints of unfair trade in 2003 led to anti-dumping regulations that halved basa and tra imports. The same year, Congress passed a law preventing the Vietnamese basa from being labeled as catfish.
More recently, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama -- where most catfish are farmed -- have issued alerts that call for strict inspection of some catfish imports after antibiotics showed up in some samples. A federal law requires sellers to affix "made in" stickers that show where fish are caught.
To environmentalists, who consider catfish among the greenest of seafoods, the foreign surge is cause for concern.
"Where we go as a globe in terms of dealing with these issues will be driven by what's happening in China," said George Leonard, a scientist with the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Whereas Vietnamese breeds are often trapped in net-pen systems that can tax natural resources, the U.S. fish are raised in closed ponds that reduce the risk of spreading disease and have minimal environmental impact, Leonard said.
"We need to work at what we do here so U.S. practices can be models," he said during a catfish conference at the Georgia Aquarium.