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Fishing for Gold: The Story of Alabama's Catfish Industry

While fish had been raised for food for centuries in some cultures, it wasn't until recently that farmers in Alabama started raising catfish. Most of those people are, happily, still alive, and Karni Perez, an independent researcher in Auburn, has found them and talked to them.

By Don Noble

There are occupations in this world, like coal mining, that are hard and look hard. There are also occupations that look hard and are actually easy. I could name a few here, but it would be rude. There is a third category, occupations that look easy and are actually hard. Book reviewing is one of these. So, surprisingly, is raising catfish. As we drive through Hale County and see the ponds just sitting there in the sun, we imagine the farmers napping and collecting their profits while the catfish do all the work. Nothing, as they say, could be farther from the truth.

Humans have been raising fish for centuries. The Chinese raised carp as long ago as 2,000 B.C. The ancient Egyptians may have raised tilapia and the ancient Romans mullet. By the eighteenth century, the Germans were raising trout.

But it wasn't until recently that farmers in Alabama started raising catfish. Most of those people are, happily, still alive, and Karni Perez, an independent researcher in Auburn, has found them and talked to them.

This book, a history of the catfish industry in Alabama, is informative and well-researched, but it is also readable because Perez tells the story partly through the voices of the pioneers in Greensboro, Alabama and at the fisheries laboratories at Auburn. These persistent few had to invent an industry?not only the procedures for hatching and feeding and harvesting but also the equipment: paddles to aerate the water, even a machine to skin the fish.

Catfish raising for profit?that is, not a little farm pond for family sport and consumption?began about 1960. A few farmers who had ponds put catfish in them and fed the fish and hoped. This book reveals what they had to learn about raising fish.

First, they learned that their farm ponds were not very suitable for commercial purposes. The pond had to be drained for harvesting, and the bottom, full of stumps and deep holes, did not allow the use of a seine, so the fish had to be gathered practically by hand. If natural water was used, a stream for example, other species of fish, some of them predators of catfish, got in, and so did hundreds of kinds of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

After it became clear that a pond had to be dug, no one knew how many catfish per acre should be put in. Part of the problem was that before floating feed was invented, training the fish to rise to the surface to eat, it was impossible to tell how many were alive in the pond. Most catfish farmers put in two or three thousand, some five, six, or nine thousand. Some put in 50,000. One had over 100,000 per acre.

There was a marketing problem as well. Catfish in nature are bottom-feeders, scavengers, and a lot of people would simply not consider eating them. Those who did like to eat catfish went to the river and caught them. Many farmers found that, after they had grown the catfish, it was hard to sell them. Half the farmers of 1970 were out of business by 1980.

And catfish, which certainly look hardy, even fierce, with their barbs, are actually frail creatures in captivity. If the temperature of the water rises too much, they die. If the oxygen level in the water gets too low, they die. Not enough vitamin C: they die. Too much algae in the pond: they die. They also have many predators. Cormorants, a protected species, arrive in migratory flocks by the thousands to gobble catfish. Flocks of Great Blue Herons move in and eat two-thirds of a pound of fish each per day. Otters and alligators arrive, too, and farmers step on way too many snakes as they check their ponds at night. There are even catfish "rustlers," who steal from the ponds by night.

Over time, however, the problems got solved and the industry has grown. Today, more than a thousand people in Alabama owe their livelihood to the catfish business. It is a desirable dish in restaurants and, in Japan, they import Alabama catfish and eat it raw.

Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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