Protecting the catfish industry

Published: Saturday 15 March 2003

 Why are the Vietnamese being< (Credit: USDA)an unsavoury row has erupted in the us over the import of Vietnamese frozen fish fillets. On January 27, the us department of commerce (doc) slapped anti-dumping duties on the product stating that it was being sold in the domestic market at less than the fair price.

Duties ranging from 38 per cent to 64 per cent will be imposed on 'basa' and 'tra' (Vietnamese catfish). The decision drew criticism from Vietnamese firms who see it as an attempt to protect the us catfish industry.

In June 2002, Catfish Farmers of America (cfa) petitioned the doc demanding punitive duties as high as 190 per cent on Vietnamese exports. The cfa is a body representing catfish farmers and processors in four us states and eight other firms. The levy is said to have been slapped to mollify the pressure group and has evoked a predictable response from cfa. The doc's preliminary ruling has "gratified" the us catfish industry, said the body 's executive director Hugh Warren.

cfa members contended that the cheaper Vietnamese fish was adversely affecting the us industry's bottomlines. It may be noted that the prices of the imported fish are 50 per cent less than those of the us varieties. The value of Vietnamese catfish exports to the us has increased from us $13 million in 1999 to more than us $55 million in 2002.

In December 2002, five us senators had sent a letter to commerce secretary Don Evans asserting that "the success of Vietnamese catfish exporters in the us is not because of dumping or government subsidies, but due to the quality of the Vietnamese product and its low production costs". But, it seems the doc turned a deaf ear to the senators' argument.

Pertinently, the us catfish industry employs only about 13,000 people compared to the 3-4 lakh workers in the Vietnamese companies. The anti-dumping duties are likely to send Vietnamese fish prices zooming by almost 33 per cent. Consequently sales of poor fisherfolk are likely to plummet in a nation where the average per capita income is one-fiftieth of that in the us.

While investigating the dumping allegations, doc had earlier said that Vietnam should be treated as "non-market economy" for the application of anti-dumping and countervailing duties. This decision could have influenced the level of levies imposed. The current ruling comes against a backdrop of protectionist barriers put up by the us under the 2002 Agriculture Appropriations Act, which prohibits labelling of fish or fish products as 'catfish' unless they belong to the Ictalariidae family of catfish, in effect restricting imports into the country.

The doc is expected to make its final decision by June 16, 2003, but the duties will be applied immediately.

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