Long before the world was introduced to flippy chains, mobius balls, and traditional fidget spinners, those with excess energy or just a bad case of the jitters were forced to find other outlets for their nervous excitement. And one of these has recently come to be characterized as an extreme recreational activity. Banned in many states but part of the culture of the American deep south, the pastime is described as ‘a southern sport that attempts to equalize the struggle between man and animal in the quest for a sense of fair play.’(1) But what is it and why are we interested in it here? Patience, grasshopper! We’re about to enter the weird world of the siluriforme noodler….
The what? Let’s start with a couple of additional definitions.
Siluriformes, also known as Nematognathi, are the order of animals to which catfish belong.
Defined by features of their heavy and bony skulls and small swimbladders, they range in size from the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish of Southeast Asia which can weigh in at almost 800lbs to the diminutive parasitic species, the Candiru, which is is found in the Amazon Basin. Because of their small swimbladders, catfish are negatively buoyant – meaning they sink – which makes them perfect benthic feeders, feeding on bottom sediments and detritus. In this regard, they play an important role in maintaining the health of their local ecosystems.
But ecology is not the only reason why they are prized. According to a column published in ESPN, ‘ranking right up there with bull fighting, skiing Mount Everest, parachuting off waterfalls and walking tightropes stretched between city skyscrapers’ is catfish noodling – the practice of ‘hand-grabbing’ the fish.(2) A new phenomenon? Not exactly. In fact, possibly the first record of the art comes in a description by historian-trader, James Adair. Writing in 1775, Adair observed Native Americans who ‘dive under the rock where the cat-fish lie to shelter themselves from the scorching beams of the sun, and to watch for prey: as soon as those fierce aquatic animals see that tempting bait, they immediately seize it with the greatest violence, in order to swallow it. Then is the time for the diver to improve the favourable opportunity: he accordingly opens his hand, seizes the voracious fish by his tender parts, hath a sharp struggle with it … and at last brings it safe ashore.’(3) Noodling – also known as ‘hogging,’ ‘tickling,’ ‘graveling,’ ‘stumping,’ ‘dogging,’ and ‘grabbling’ is – in other words – the sport of fishing for catfish using only the hands – no bait, no lines, hooks, wires, or nets.
But why would a person be interested in hauling a catfish – certainly not the most aesthetic of marine denizens – from its lair? Well, according to some, the animal is not only a worthy opponent in the ‘sport’ of noodling but also a tasty entree after a day spent waist-deep in a river. Indeed, catfish is a traditional part of the Southern diet and is usually served baked, deep fried, or blackened with a heaping side of hush puppies, ‘slaw, greens, and fresh corn. Moreover it’s not only diners in the south who enjoy the purported health benefits of the catch. According to LiveStrong, a fitness and healthy living portal, catfish is enjoyed in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe, where it is prized for its omega fatty acids, high levels of vitamin B12 and B1, and its phosphorus and selenium content.(4) With that said, there is a radical difference between wild-caught and farmed catfish with the former providing 199% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D and the latter offering none which is significant inasmuch as Vitamin D helps increase the bioavailability of calcium, regulate the immune system, and supports regeneration on the cellular level. On the other hand, farmed catfish is unlikely to contain any level of heavy metal toxicity, whereas the wild animals may test positive for small levels of mercury.
What both farmed and wild-caught fish can offer, however, is the potential of contamination.
Both imported and domestic catfish products are routinely tested for veterinary drug residues, including nitrofurans and some fluoroquinolones; malachite green – an antimicrobial agent used in aquaculture; the antibacterial/antifungal agent gentian violet; metals; and some pesticides. But that’s not always the basis for a recall, as we discovered in a news release from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) last week. In a Class 1 action – that is one with ‘a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death’ – the regulators published notification of a recall of ‘12,054 pounds of ready-to-eat (RTE) imported Siluriformes products’ produced by ‘Golden Pearl Trading Corporation (doing business as Dandy Food Products).’(5) Imported from Singapore, the items were not presented to the FSIS for re-inspection, possibly because that country is ineligible to export RTE siluriformes products to the US. Similarly, in 2019, the agency made a much larger catch of some 76,025lbs of siluriformes products imported from Bangladesh and Myanmar. According to SeafoodNews.com, a seafood industry daily news service targeted at sellers, importers, brokers, traders, distributors of marine food products, Premium Foods of Woodside, NY, was forced to recall these items for the same reason – the lack of an import inspection.
Moreover according to an article in Seafood Source, an online news source for seafood industry professionals, 2019 saw five additional recalls of catfish products totaling almost 300,000lbs in weight.
And, aggravatingly, the waste that ensued was not due to product contamination but was precipitated by widespread confusion around a shift in governmental regulation. When responsibility for siluriformes inspection moved from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the USDA’s FSIS many importers and suppliers failed to note the change, making their products non-compliant with export requirements. As Gavin Gibbons, of the National Fisheries Institute, commented in the SeafoodSource interview: ‘This is a quintessential illustration of the confusion created by two separate agencies regulating seafood. When FDA regulates all of seafood, and has for somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 years, then USDA begins regulating just one subset, these type of problems arise [resulting in] a fractured food safety system.’(6)
It is concerning that a ‘fractured system’ that has, according to the Wall Street Journal, been characterized by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as ‘unnecessary, wasteful and based on faulty science [and] never tied to catfish’ is now causing the majority of global producers to be ineligible to export to the US: ‘Under the FDA’s oversight, two dozen countries had been able to export catfish to the U.S. Last week, the USDA said Vietnam was one of only three countries that have made it through the latest round of the review process. The other two were China, which accounts for about 5% of imports, and Thailand. Catfish producers such as Guyana say their export businesses are no longer viable.’(7)
Equally problematic is the way in which these regulatory moves have effectively tightened competition in the market, edging small producers and importers out. To wit, a cautionary tale from Sean Bergen, founder and chief executive of Sustainable Seafood Sales LLC based in Portland, ME: ‘Once the USDA took over, [Bergen said] his partnership to bring in fresh catfish from the Dominican Republic quickly became unsustainable. At one point, his fish got delayed at the border because, he says, the paperwork used the abbreviation “lbs.” for “pounds.” After two weeks of delays, they stamped the shipment as fit for the U.S. market,” he said. By then the fish had long “surpassed its shelf life.”’(8)
Small purveyors of siluriformes may be forgiven for concluding that something’s altogether fishy in the catfish market.
After all, when there are only three players in the market – one of which is China with its not entirely unblemished record in food safety – it’s hard to imagine how businesses such as Bergen’s will compete. Moreover, even for the countries permitted to export to the US, rumblings of dissent have been heard. According to a complaint lodged with the World Trade Organization (WTO) by Vietnam, the USDA’s new regulatory program has created onerous barriers to trade that could result in impacts in non-fish markets. Indeed, the National Fisheries Institute president, John Connelly, voiced concern over the extent to which the program is ‘poised to negatively impact significant U.S. agriculture exports to Vietnam. Cotton, wheat and other grains, pork, soybeans, beef, poultry, eggs and fruit, may end up in the crosshairs of retaliatory tariffs.’(9)
More tariffs, further breakdowns in trade agreements, small domestic suppliers facing an uphill battle to compete in the market – these were scarcely the intended consequences of the USDA program, yet they are indeed some of the results. And has the change in regulation made the targeted products safer for the consumer? Arguably not. According to Penny Crappell, a small wholesaler of catfish in Louisiana, the new regulations are ‘Kafka-esque’ at best and non-sensical at worst. After a USDA inspection of her facilities, Crappell learned only that two changes were required: the color-coding of her shovels, and the purchase of a label maker. However, that was allegedly the absolute limit of the guidance she received from the USDA representative. Crappell commented to the Wall Street Journal: ‘You can never get anyone to tell you exactly what about the label needs fixing. The agent made a big hooha about it. She tried peeling it off. She said she had to write it up. She made an act of Congress out of it.’(10)
What are your thoughts? Does the shift from the FDA to the USDA cause you concern? Or do you see the issues as mere teething problems? We’d love to hear from you!