A River Full of Fish: Industrial Catfish Production and the Decline of Commercial Fishing on the Upper Mississippi River

By Ziegenhorn, Randy | Human Organization, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

A River Full of Fish: Industrial Catfish Production and the Decline of Commercial Fishing on the Upper Mississippi River


Ziegenhorn, Randy, Human Organization


This paper explores the decline of commercial fishing on the upper Mississippi River. For much of the 20th century fishing provided work for many in river communities and an important buffer against fluctuations in the regional economy. In the late 1960s the introduction of pond-raised catfish from newly created fish farms in the southern United States created a source of uniform, mild-flavored, and untainted fish that satisfied the preferences of both the food industry and consumers. Demand for river fish, in particular catfish, collapsed. Today fish are plentiful in the Mississippi but low prices offer little incentive to independent fishers. Some fish processors, faced with declining local demand, have stepped up sales of river fish to markets as far away as New York. Other processors have opted not to fight the fish-farming industry and now distribute pond-raised catfish. This paper explores the complex social and economic forces that have reshaped local economies and the ecology of the river itself.

Keywords: fishing, fish farming, industrial agriculture, food, Mississippi River

The small carnival fills the blocked off streets on two sides of City Park in New Boston, Illinois. My friend and I walk along the game booths staffed by aggressive carnies barking their offerings. We head for the shelter on the north end of the park where the New Boston Fish Fry is under way. The crowd that moves around us is a strange mixture of children, drunks, teenage girls, couples, and young men looking for fights. My friend is the parole officer for this area and he looks around nervously fearing trouble. We fall in line and get our catfish, cole slaw, baked beans, bread, and iced tea. There is room at a table in the corner of the shelter. We sit next to a man and woman who, having apparently eaten, are consuming can after can of Budweiser, which they withdraw from a brown grocery sack. The empties litter the table around them. Looking about I see this kind of drinking earned on elsewhere. The catfish is tasteless but for the salt and grease that cling to the breading around it. My fish is exactly the size of my friend's fish and exactly the size of all the other fish in the fryer from which it was extracted. A couple of parolees nod stiffly as they walk past my friend. We finish and walk back to the serving line where a half dozen men and women are cooking the fish. At the fryer is a young man whose company supplies the fish for the fish fry. I ask him what grade of diesel fuel he's frying the fish in this year, and he laughs and asks me if I would prefer mine raw. The parole officer and I start to leave the park. In the distance a bottle breaks and then another. We leave town without incident and the greasy fish leaves me feeling queasy.

New Boston and river towns like it are nearly invisible in the agricultural landscape of the rural Midwest. The town itself is almost lost in the surrounding rural culture of white farmhouses, tall Methodist churches, and potluck suppers. The respectable farmers outside of New Boston have long referred to its residents with disdain as "river rats:' The Mississippi River and the catfish, carp, and buffalo fish it provided have long been central to the economy and culture of the town. For New Boston, the annual fish fry symbolizes the town's ties to the river. Over the three-day course of the event, hundreds of attendees come from across the county for the food, carnival, drinking, and socializing.

I went to school here and operate a family farm a few miles from town. Much of what I describe above is no different from the fish fries I attended 30 years ago. One thing that was different, however, was the fish served at the fish fry. Those uniform and uniformly bland catfish were not caught in the nearby Mississippi River but harvested from ponds in the state of Mississippi. The "river rats" of New Boston had no part in making the meal other than to open a box of frozen breaded fish and drop them in boiling oil. …

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