A slap in the face to catfish

Americans prefer eight seafood species to catfish, and that is a slap in the face to Mississippi’s fish. Catfish should be at the top of the list. Why? An analysis of two organizations’ findings makes a strong case.

A catfish statue in Belzoni, Mississippi, the “Catfish Capital of America.” Library of Congress

The National Fisheries Institute releases data each year showing the ten most-consumed seafoods in the United States. From 2007 to 2017 (the last year results were released by the NFI), catfish slipped from the sixth most popular seafood to the ninth. It sits at ninth on the list now, just above clams. Sixth was bad enough, but ninth?

Ahead of catfish are:

  1. shrimp
  2. salmon
  3. canned tuna
  4. tilapia
  5. Alaska pollock
  6. pangasius
  7. cod
  8. crab

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program tells consumers which seafoods are best for the ocean’s health (and sometimes, which are best for human health). Of all the fish listed above, only one gets an unconditional recommendation from Seafood Watch. Yes, it’s the catfish. “U.S. farmed catfish … is a best choice,” the guide says. Even wild-caught U.S. catfish from the Chesapeake Bay is recommended unconditionally.

Pangasius, or basa — the Asia-sourced catfish look-a-like that surpassed the catfish in popularity in 2011, is the opposite. Seafood Watch says simply that pangasius should be avoided. “Say no thanks,” the group advises.

An awe-inspiring plate of fried catfish from Cock of the Walk.

Some of the other “top eight” foods on the list are good choices, too — if you can work your way through the many warnings and qualifications that Seafood Watch provides for those foods. Tilapia, for example, is recommended, but only if it was farmed in an indoor circulating tank, a pond in Ecuador, or a “raceway” (whatever that is) in Peru. Tilapia farmed in various other ways in six other nations are OK, but have environmental issues. Tilapia farmed in China should be flat-out avoided. Make sure you have your guidelines handy the next time you go shopping for tilapia — and good luck obtaining detailed information about where and how your tilapia was caught or farmed.

Tilapia in its pale, mushy glory. Creative Commons

Shrimp, the most popular seafood in the country, is even more complicated than tilapia. U.S.-farmed whiteleg shrimp is a good choice — but more than 90% of the shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported. Even our beloved Gulf shrimp, if caught with a certain method of trawling, should be avoided. Shrimp caught in traps in Nova Scotia is a great choice — where can I find some of that?

Catfish is simply a worry-free, environmentally sound choice. And every time you buy farm-raised catfish, you support the Southern farmers who grow it. Not to even mention taste. (Let’s just say I cooked tilapia. Once.) It’s a no-brainer. Hopefully we’ll see catfish swim back up the list, regaining and surpassing its old no. 6 spot.