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New Kentucky product: paddlefish

BELLEVUE — A woman in Northern Kentucky hopes she can make a fish product as identifiable with the Bluegrass State as bluegrass.

Reneé Koerner of Bellevue, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, raises paddlefish, and tells the Kentucky Enquirer that the ancient fish's flesh and caviar both make a good meal.

"It is so good," Koerner said of paddlefish meat. "It is mild, bright, white, no bones and has the consistency of pork."

Koerner also expects to benefit from some international rules. The United Nations has placed restrictions on caviar fishing in the Caspian Sea, which will increase the demand for American caviar, Koerner said.

"I wanted something that could compete on a world market," Koerner said.

Koerner envisions her company, Big Fish Farms, shipping paddlefish caviar and meat all over the world.

She raises the hatchlings in a tank in her home and then contracts with farmers in Ohio and Kentucky to raise the fish.

The paddlefish business isn't something she just jumped into.

Koerner and her husband, Keith, consulted six years ago with Steve Mims, of Kentucky State University's aquaculture program. Mims has studied the paddlefish and its potential as an industry for 20 years.

"It takes someone willing to take a chance to work for new markets, entrepreneurs that are interested in doing something different," Mims said.

Those willing to put in the work have a chance to get in on a developing market. There are only about four paddlefish ranchers in Kentucky, Mims said, and Tennessee has some but the industry hasn't developed.

Koerner makes raising them sound easy.

The paddlefish eat zooplankton and require little maintenance, and could be a boon for Kentucky, she said.

"It would be a great, environmentally sound innovation," Koerner said. "When we get started growing caviar, the state revenue could be huge."

But Koerner doesn't expect to be getting a big cut of that for about five more years. She has raised and sold paddlefish fingerlings for the past three years, but they don't reach sexual maturity and produce eggs until their eighth year.

A lack of available water is the only thing holding the industry back, Mims said.

He says there have been efforts to convince the state to lease space in public water supply lakes or parks for farmers to raise paddlefish.

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