Aquaculture—farming water for food as opposed to fishing it—is as old as civilization. The Romans did it; so did Mrs. Martin Luther. But catfish farming is an American industry, something of a native-born wonder. As I mentioned previously, catfish farms revitalized a vast area of the Deep South and provided Americans coast to coast with a relatively healthy and affordable protein—to the tune of 662 million pounds of farm-raised American-grown catfish in the year 2003, which was the peak, according to the Mississippi State University.
Then came Vietnam.
The revival of the U.S. steel industry has been a goal of the Trump administration, a component of the MAGA agenda that got him elected in November 2016. That this industry needs reviving is a result of several factors, but a big one is steel-dumping; barges of cheap or even free steel sent over the Pacific by Asian producers not subject to American regulations or wage requirements, with the intent of flooding our market with cheap product that, in turn, would create an advantage for the foreign producers by bankrupting domestic ones.
Asian producers have done the same with “catfish.”
That’s why the peak year for the American farm-raised catfish industry was 15 years ago. For it was around then that Vietnam began dumping something labelled “catfish” into American markets.
Are you saying they aren’t really catfish? Oh, and while we’re at it: Aren’t all tariffs racist? These are the games globalists play.
The catalphie worms that catfish—American catfish—love are a regional thing: a mid-South thing, right down to the local transformation of the word Catalpa (the tree on which these fluorescent larvae live, which is native to the lower mid-South) into the folksy catalphie, said best with a mid-South accent. Emails from friends as well as letters to the editor following the first installment of this fish story revealed other nicknames for the greatest of all catfish baits, but catalphie is the common name coined at what we might call ground zero: the native region of the thing itself. The soil, the flora, the fauna, the people—these things produce culture, including language, including words which shape thoughts and convey reality and give richness to everyday life.
In very meaningful ways, we are not “all the same.” We were not all grown in the same soil, even though we may look alike on the surface. Viticulturists and oenophiles know what identitarians cannot grasp. So do backyard gardeners. The flavor of that winter tomato really does suggest that it was bred for toughness, grown in Argentina, harvested green, sprayed with ripening chemicals, and trucked thousands of miles.
The fish dump from Asia came in the form of another southern native, the Pangasius bocourti; native, that is, to South and Southeast Asia. The genus Pangasius belongs to the family Pangasiidae, which resemble a shark. The Pangasiidae in turn are of the order Siluriformes, which is the worldwide designation for ray-finned fish with barbels that resemble the whiskers of a cat.
So yes, in that global, “we are the world” sense, the fish dump from Asia involved “catfish.”
When, as a (shall we say) resident of North America, you bait up your hook with blood dip or chicken liver or cut bluegill or a nightcrawler—or a glorious catalphie worm—and head to the river or the pond, what are you hoping to catch? Catfish, or (again with the globalist games) what we Americans in this country call catfish, which would be a flathead or a channel cat or a blue cat. The channel and the blue are of the genus Ictalurus, and the flathead (the mud cat) is of the genus Pylodictis.
Scientifically, what unites the mud cat with the channel and the blue is their membership in the North American catfish family Ictaluridae, a family classification that includes the bullhead. Nonetheless. Go to any bait shop, ask aloud whether a bullhead is a catfish, and be prepared for a vigorous debate. It may get ugly. I just wasn’t raised to call a bullhead a catfish.
Still, the bullhead, the flathead, the channel, and the blue—what we catch and eat of the Ictaluridae family here in American flyover country—find common ground with the Asian “shark catfish” only at several scientific layers removed, within the order Siluriformes. Globally, they’re all technically “catfish.” And if you think globally and act like a flathead, you might be happy to call things that originate on the other side of the world and share one or two similar traits by the same name.
Owing to the end of the U.S. trade embargo with Vietnam in 1995 and a subsequent bilateral trade agreement in 2001 under the Bush administration, the Catfish War (an actual thing with that actual name) commenced. American catfish producers were angered by fraudulent importers and Asian dumpers who wanted to destroy their businesses and thereby wreck entire communities in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana; communities that weren’t exactly swimming in cash to begin with. Across the country, suddenly there was an influx of cheap “catfish” in markets, supermarkets, restaurants—blander, vacuum-packed frozen filets with reddish veins that did not really look like catfish (on our terms) to the trained eye.
When globalism is threatening an entire domestic industry and has infected the very food supply, where can you go but to the lord, by which I mean Washington? So in 2001, the Catfish Producers of America petitioned the feds, Congress passed a law, and the FDA now required these Southeast Asian shark catfish to be labelled as something other than “catfish” when sold at the Kroger. Now they were to be called basa or tra or swai (Vietnamese words). In addition, the FDA required COOL (country of origin labelling) to be applied to Third World shark cats and other seafood products from the other side of planet earth. Finally, Washington agreed to a tariff—up to 63 percent—on the fake fish.
And wouldn’t you know it, the New York Times was outraged. According to the paper’s unsigned editorial, what had happened was this: A delegation of compassionate globalist Americans had gone to the Mekong Delta in the wake of 1995’s lifting of the trade embargo, had suggested that the Vietnamese communists take advantage of their country’s topography and tiny wages, and had urged the creation of a “catfish industry” that, logically, would challenge the American market. The Vietnamese had taken the advice, had “became one of globalization’s brightest stories in the 1990’s,” and now the racist American protectionists wanted to destroy them. (Did I mention that Trent Lott favored catfish protection? Uh huh.) The 2003 editorial, “Harvesting Poverty: The Great Catfish War,” had more than a whiff of disdain for the Southerners (the American Southerners) who stood to benefit from not having their livelihoods destroyed. The phrase “To the dismay of the Mississippi Farm Bureau,” by itself as a qualifier, tells you all you need to know to identify the deplorable nature of this unfair fight of bigoted rich white Southerners (of course, black Southerners also worked in this industry) against millions of innocent Vietnamese communists. And after all, by the economics of the Newspaper of Record, the fact that, thanks to globalism, Vietnam’s “rural poverty rate was slashed to 30 percent from 70 percent” should have caused every deplorable tongue to say thank you for taking my job and for flooding my supermarket with frozen shark cats. Viva globalism!
Stepping into the breach on behalf of the Vietnamese worker was America’s Senator, John McCain: “He considers this case not only naked protectionism but also a betrayal of the nation’s strategic commitment to use trade to encourage change in a Communist society.” Remember, this was 2003, and McCain wasn’t running against the Messiah at the time, so he qualified as a hero and an expert on economics, war, and morality in the eyes of the Times, a status that returned to him when in 2015 he told The New Yorker that Trump supporters were “crazies” for wanting to deport illegal aliens; a statement that precipitated Trump’s unwise rejoinder about liking war pilots who don’t get captured. McCain was useful when he was useful, and otherwise just another white supremacist. In this case, his harrowing stint as a prisoner of war in Hanoi afforded him the authority to speak on the quality of fish farmed in the Mekong Delta.
Make no mistake: 15 years ago, the Old Gray Lady was cranking out fake news, declaring her refusal to give a damn about flyover Americans to be proof that sympathy for those same Americans’ plight was (therefore) meaningless and bigoted:
Senator McCain is right. The catfish war is an obscure story here, but it is front-page news in Vietnam. Washington’s solicitousness on behalf of a few thousand domestic catfish farmers has stirred a great deal of anti-American resentment in Vietnam, a country of 80 million, resurrecting images of an imperial bully.
The story concluded with a reminder that all of this made the general secretary of the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters, one Nguyen Huu Dung, very sad. Huu Dung was right to care for his people. John was right to care for Huu Dung’s people. John had no people; his “nation” was “founded” on an idea.
Taking advantage of communist government subsidies and (essentially) slave labor, the protectionist Vietnamese government pointed the finger at America and cried “protectionism!” Playing the long game, they pressed harder, increasing the fish-dump on the United States. Fraudulent labeling and consumer ignorance and indifference—aided and abetted by sunshine free-traders such as McCain, who acted as if the enforcement of COOL and tariffs amounted to human-rights violations—sorely reduced domestic demand for American farm-raised catfish. Farms closed down, processing plants shuttered, and by 2014 this American industry had been cut in half.
The structure of the Mekong Delta allows for the river’s waters—among the most polluted in the world—to expedite fish farming and processing. You can dump the guts right in the river. In light of that, the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill proposed that quality control inspections of imported Vietnamese “catfish” be transferred from the FDA to the more stringent USDA. In 2015, Senator McCain rose to the floor of the Senate to denounce this policy, as well as all U.S. “protectionist” catfish policies, insisting that together they formed an existential threat to the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was still pending at the time. (President Trump withdrew the U.S. authorization for the TPP during his first month in office.) “I’ve been fighting this catfish battle for a long time,” said McCain.
Full enforcement of the USDA inspection policy went into effect in 2017. Since then, a curious thing has happened: Somehow “basa” is not selling as well in the U.S. market. In response, Vietnam has lodged a complaint against the USDA, calling America’s internal regulation of foreign food an “unfair trade advantage.” Yet the protectionist Vietnamese are soldiering on. European governments have severely restricted and in some countries banned the Vietnamese “catfish” (across the pond, it’s now called the Whitefish War), but the Mekong shark cats have found eager buyers for their cheap product in China and, most recently, South America—both rather large markets.
Industrialization, the nationalization of industries, and globalization have progressively made certain things very cheap and readily available. But the process has dehumanized us. We stand before the freezer case at Walmart and wonder whether or not it’s worth it to save a few dollars per pound for something that looks like familiar food. Can we trust the labels slapped onto these frozen fish—COOL food from the opposite ends of the earth—by communist exporters and greedy globalist importers? Should we depend for our sustenance and safety on Washington, D.C., and the victors of debates over globalism and nationalism in the U.S. Senate? If we “let the market decide,” we risk poisoning ourselves and destroying our neighbor’s livelihood. If we let government decide, we place into the hands of far-away politicians—who know little about our local and regional way of life and who want to look good on TV and be interviewed by the New York Times—decisions about something so basic as our daily bread. To say the least, this is not a scenario the Framers of our Constitution envisioned.
The catfish binary—globalism versus nationalism—reveals a bloated American way of life that is utterly out of proportion with human scale. Of course, given the circumstances, I’ll side with the nationalists to see my fellow Americans’ jobs and industries protected and to have some idea of what the supermarket chains that have put the local grocers out of business are selling me. This approach buys us time to use our imaginations and consider what sort of country we want to live in, what would be better, more sustainable, less prone to the evils of centralization and the predations of the powerful. Should a free people have to fret over the economic fortunes of Vietnamese communists or John McCain’s vision for the governments of the earth or maintaining a majority in the United States Congress when deciding what food is safe to eat?
Our old farm-raised catfish market in Lake City is long gone. But the Catalpa tree at Old Lady So-and-So’s is still there. In the White River, the catfish are waiting.
You can read Part I here.