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Reservoir ranching consists of stocking paddlefish into reservoirs, ponds, or other impoundments for the purpose of rearing the fish to maturity. Young paddlefish (approximately 12 inches) are stocked into private reservoirs or ponds and allowed to grow for 7-10 years to maturity. Once mature, gill nets are used by the ranchers to harvest the fish. Paddlefish flesh and roe (eggs) are then sold to commercial buyers, and roe prices typically range from $25 to over $100 per pound. Paddlefish flesh is not in high demand, and the presence of roe is necessary to make reservoir ranching profitable. There are efforts in progress to increase the market value of paddlefish flesh.
A recent survey of 23 states showed that paddlefish reservoir ranching is allowed in only three states in the Midwest (Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky), and those states limit reservoir ranching to water not owned or managed for public fishing by those states. Reasons for not allowing reservoir ranching were varied, but biological concerns and the ability for wildlife officers to enforce wild paddlefish harvest regulations were most often cited by the states’ fisheries chiefs. In Kentucky, reservoir ranching has been a topic of discussion since the late 1990s due to a business model proposed by Kentucky State University (KSU) and the Kentucky Aquaculture Association (KAA). Despite reservations previously described and other issues that will be covered later in this article, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) agreed to make compromises and regulatory amendments in 2006 to allow reservoir ranching in some municipal water-supply reservoirs. Currently, reservoir ranchers have access to over 2,000 acres of reservoirs and private ponds not owned or managed by KDFWR (except for two water-supply lakes opened to reservoir ranching during the industry’s genesis). There is, by far, more water utilized for reservoir ranching in Kentucky than in any other state.
Reservoir ranchers are requesting to gain access to many more public fishing reservoirs including Department-owned and U.S. Army Corps reservoirs. KDFWR’s Commission voted in 2003 to provide a statement specifying that reservoir ranching is not an accepted practice throughout the U.S. and that the concept remains “problematic” for the Fisheries Division of KDFWR. Additionally, the statement asserted that reservoir ranching should not be permitted in Kentucky because of biological, legal, social, economic, and administrative reasons. Basically, the Department is being asked to allow private industry to stock privately-owned fish in public waters where: 1) biologically, there are potential problems associated with the paddlefishes’ diet and competition with entire fish communities for limited food resources; 2) conflicts between anglers and ranchers will arise due to the need for gill nets to harvest paddlefish and special regulations to protect the industry’s fish; and 3) angler dollars pay for the reservoirs and/or the management of the sport fisheries. Paddlefish ranching may provide some financial gain to a few individuals, but the industry’s value is dwarfed when compared to the $1.2 billion value of Kentucky’s sport fishing industry.
The private reservoir ranching industry has indicated that they would be willing to provide some financial compensation to KDFWR for use of these public resources in the form of reimbursements once the fish are sold. However, there are many issues to consider. A few of which include: 1) the lack of any evidence that the industry will be profitable; 2) potential biological ramifications of stocking paddlefish into reservoirs managed for fishing. This would be even more problematic if the ranchers’ new demands were met to allow multiple stockings in reservoirs to address annual paddlefish mortality issues. There would be absolutely no method to monitor paddlefish densities; 3) the vast majority of Kentucky sportsmen and women are opposed to stocking paddlefish in public waters for private industry gain and they are concerned about setting gill nets in reservoirs. Reservoir ranchers are now asking to be allowed to set gill nets with mesh sizes smaller than 6” bar mesh. Not only will the ranchers be netting more often, but the smaller gill-net meshes would increase the likelihood of sportfish bycatch; 4) reservoir ranchers have proposed restricting bow fishing in Kentucky which is an increasingly popular recreational activity for many sportsmen and women and a method of removing rough fish species. Other fishing methods that are effective in catching paddlefish include trot lines, jugs, and snagging. Although not mentioned to date, it is doubtful that private ranchers would want to allow such activity in public reservoirs used for paddlefish rearing; and 5) private reservoir ranchers want KDFWR to provide law enforcement to protect their privately owned paddlefish. Protection of privately owned fish in public lakes would not be consistent with the Department’s mission and violates intended use of public sportsmen’s dollars.
The reservoir ranchers’ requests to expand into public lakes were listed in KAA’s 2009 Commonwealth of Kentucky Aquaculture Draft Plan, and those requests and the others expressed in this paper were provided to KDFWR in other written correspondences and meetings since that time. Based on biological concerns and regulatory demands of the industry, KDFWR believes that expanding reservoir ranching to include all public waters would not be consistent with this Department’s mission to provide the highest quality sport fishing opportunities currently provided to over 700,000 Kentucky anglers.
In order to provide fish management services that benefit sport fishing and to protect the rights of Kentucky sportsmen and women, KDFWR is opposed to the practice of paddlefish ranching in any public water that is managed or owned by this Department including reservoirs owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.