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When Canada, the U.S., and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement 20 years ago, it was one of the largest multilateral trade deals ever. But it now is dwarfed by other agreements in the works, especially the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP will bring together the economies of a dozen Pacific Rim nations, including the U.S., Japan, and Vietnam. But there are many hurdles to overcome. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on just one of those challenges.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUES MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (singing) Why does a woman need a bass guitar?

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It's a Wednesday night, and the Ground Zero blues club is three-quarters full. Local musicians belt out a ballad of love gone wrong from an old wooden stage. The smell of stale beer and fried food hangs in the air. This is Clarksdale, Mississippi and it's famous for the so-called Delta blues. But Mississippi has another claim to fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROILING WATER)

NORTHAM: The state is the largest producer of farmed catfish.

A crane lifts an enormous net from a man-made pond towards a waiting truck. Inside the net are thousands of wriggling catfish, each with a whiskered face only a mother could love. They're not really a pretty fish, are they?

BEN PENTACOST: Well, that's a matter of opinion.

NORTHAM: That's Ben Pentacost, president of the Catfish Farmers of America. He watches as the fish are placed in large tanks of cold water on the truck.

PENTACOST: Over 2000 lbs in that basket. They have scales, above the basket, to weigh them.

NORTHAM: That sounds like a lot but...

PENTACOST: Our industry peaked at 660 million pounds live weight fish. And this last year I think we did 300 million pounds.

NORTHAM: Pentacost says more than half of the American catfish farms have disappeared over the past decade. One of those that's suffered is Pride of the Pond, about 80 miles away.

BILL BATTLE: At one time, I was 3,000 acres. Now I'm basically about 1200 acres of water.

NORTHAM: Bill Battle peers through the window of a pick-up truck at his catfish farm in Tunica, Mississippi. The pancake-flat land is broken up by massive ponds, some holding up to 100,000 pounds of catfish. Cormorants fly low over the ponds, keeping an eye out for fish. Battle keeps a shotgun in the front seat - business is hard enough without the birds cutting into his profit.

Battle has been catfish farming for more than three decades. He says he's watched with alarm as Vietnam has flooded the U.S. market with its own, cheaper catfish. It now makes up 60 percent of the American market, even though, Battle says, the Vietnamese fish are raised with antibiotics in polluted water.

BATTLE: I can't believe that the Vietnamese can still send product into this country with the stuff they're using to raise fish. We used to use those things back in the '70s before they were illegal.

NORTHAM: Battle says the Vietnamese catfish represent a serious food safety issue. The Food and Drug Administration is tasked with checking the catfish imports. But Battle and other fish farmers have been pushing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement its own, more stringent, inspection program.

Le Chi Dzung, the head of the economic section at Vietnam's Embassy in Washington vigorously disputes that their catfish are not safe. Dzung says if the USDA inspection program is implemented, it would be an unfair trade barrier.

LE CHI DZUNG: We understand that the American consumers have very high standards, and our producers, our farmers, understand that. And we have been working with them to make sure that the regulations are met, that the issues are addressed.

NORTHAM: At any other time, this could be nothing more than just a trade spat between two former enemies - ones that have been mending relations over the past decade. But catfish have become an issue at a sensitive time in negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

ERNIE BOWER: I think the catfish story is an important one. And it's emblematic of the fact that trade issues get very local, very quickly.

NORTHAM: Ernie Bower, an Asia specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the catfish dispute puts the U.S. administration in a difficult position. According to private documents on WikiLeaks, U.S. negotiators working on the TPP are already finding it hard to make their case on issues such as intellectual property rights, environment, and labor. Bower says the administration may want to help and protect the American catfish farmer, but it has larger interests in mind.

BOWER: It is absolutely vital to American competitiveness that we get this agreement. If we don't do the TPP, we are literally on the bench as Asia organizes itself for 21st century growth, and - make no mistake - they could do it without us.

NORTHAM: The Vietnamese embassy's Dzung doubts that the catfish dispute will be a deal-breaker in the TPP negotiations. But he says Vietnam imports large amounts of beef, pork and soy beans from the U.S. And that if the USDA does begin the catfish inspection program, Vietnamese leaders would have a hard time explaining it to their people.

DZUNG: And we cannot go back to them and say that: Well, we should open our market to American products; at the same time, we are seeing the possibility of our catfish export to the U.S. stop, you know, just like that. And thousands of jobs will be gone.

NORTHAM: Negotiators hoped to have the TPP trade deal wrapped up by the end of the year, but that's not going to happen. There are still many outstanding issues, like catfish, that need to be resolved.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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