Making a Pretty Profit From an Ugly Fish

Catfish might seem like a tough food to slide past the finicky palates of American consumers.

Not so, says "Catfish" Bill Allen, president of the Catfish Institute, based in Belzoni, Miss.

"We've had to take two steps - first was to overcome the scavenger image," he says. "The more subtle challenge was to show the versatility of grilled or poached catfish, without knocking fried."

The town of Belzoni, where the institute plots its strategy of putting a catfish on every plate in America, is in the heart of the catfish belt, 167,280 acres of catfish ponds on farms stretching across Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Belzoni touts itself as the "catfish capital of the world."

Over the past 10 years, the carefully crafted message of the institute - which is funded by producers of catfish food - has succeeded in largely erasing the image of a fish with an ugly mug of barbels and a large wide mouth that sucks up food from river or pond bottoms.

Those efforts have made catfish America's biggest-selling aquaculture-raised fish, easily surpassing crawfish, trout, salmon, and tilapia. The US aquaculture industry last year produced 439 million pounds of catfish, compared with just 52 million pounds of trout.

By contrast with other nations like Japan and China, Americans do not have a big appetite for fish, consuming only about one-third as much as the Japanese, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Still, the United States is running a "seafood deficit" of around $3 billion, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

To meet that demand, US aquaculture is booming in New England, which is trying to put out-of-work Georges Bank fishermen onto high-tech fish farms.

While US aquaculture is just 2 percent of world output, it is growing at about 5 percent a year, largely because of catfish. Americans' per-capita catfish consumption has doubled in a decade, leaping from less than half a pound to nearly a pound per year. At the same time, industry sales have jumped from $223 million in 1986 to $545 million last year.

The mastermind behind changing the public's negative perception of the catfish from lowlife to gracious dinner table entree is Brad Todd, an executive at The Richards Group, a Dallas advertising agency that has handled the catfish account for the past decade.

"We've been able to get to thought leaders in industry - nutritionists, chefs, as well as consumers - and get them to think about catfish in a different light," he says.

Mr. Todd speaks beguilingly over the phone of the joys of catfish fajitas, cold catfish chunks sprinkled on Greek or Caesar salad, and, of course, catfish "mousse" (it's a lot like cheese souffle, he explains).

His advertising copy speaks "in praise of the lowly catfish" and asks people to "think of it as a chicken that doesn't cluck."

Yet as delicate as this soft sell is, Todd is also quite blunt in assessing the problem.

"We realize this is not the most beautiful creature that God created," he says. "But beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

"And the real beauty of it is how it tastes."

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