The stage is set for a roe row. A new report submitted to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency claims the state's paddlefish--whose eggs have been heralded as an environmentally viable alternative to caviar from depleting sturgeon stocks--is possibly facing a similarly dark fate as its distant relatives in the Caspian Sea.
"One of my colleagues put it this way: 'Every time a fish is discovered to have edible eggs, it's like putting a big red X on its back,'" said Phil Bettoli, a biologist at Tennessee Tech University, who heads the team that submitted the report.
The study, which monitored paddlefish populations in Kentucky Lake, Tenn., for three years, found that 66 percent fewer paddlefish were pulled from the water by commercial fishers in 2003 than in 2000. Bettoli said the fish's dwindling numbers can be attributed to two basic problems: damage to natural habitats from dams and reservoirs and commercial overfishing as a result of an increased demand for paddlefish eggs.
The crucial figures, to Bettoli, involve the number of females old enough to produce eggs, both for reproduction and for human consumption. Paddlefish typically live more than 20 years, the study notes, but the females don't reach initial spawning maturity until at least eight years of age and only 26 percent are spawning by age nine. However, fishers are permitted to keep female paddlefish, which they can also sell for their edible flesh, at a size achieved around seven years old.
A study from 1991--when demand for paddlefish was much lower than it is today--found that 27 percent of the female paddlefish caught were more than 10 years old. In contrast, for both the 2002 to 2003 and the 2003 to 2004 harvests, only 8 percent were found to be at this mature spawning age. The most alarming fact, Bettoli said, was that "37 percent of the fish collected in 1991 were older than the oldest fish we collected in our study."
The majority of harvested paddlefish eggs, both for domestic and export markets, are gathered within the borders of Tennessee, although the fish is found in several states, the report states.
To save the paddlefish population, the report recommends that the minimum catch size should be increased, so that the fish will be reproductively mature when they are large enough to legally keep.
Bettoli said his suggested actions, if taken, would hit the wallets of commercial fishers. "I know there are some fishers who agree with our findings that the stock is being overfished," Bettoli said, "and, not surprisingly, there are some who take a rather different view of our research findings and recommendations."
One such person is Mike Kelley of Savannah, Tenn.-based Kelley's Katch Caviar, one of the state's largest suppliers of paddlefish eggs. He interprets Bettoli's report as concluding that the current status of paddlefish is, in fact, stable. "Anyway, only one lake was studied," Kelley said, "and there are thousands of acres of water in Tennessee."
Bettoli, who said he intends to study paddlefish in more bodies of water, countered, "We concluded that the population shows every sign of being overfished, but it is not facing imminent collapse. That is a lot different than saying everything is alright." Severe weather, such as a drought, he added, could cause the fish's numbers to plummet further.
George Scholten, a biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, is also eager to see new regulations. His office, which wields executive power over commercial fishing in the state's waters, believes that stricter regulations will help the industry in the long run. He said any initial shock from new limitations on catch size will be "minor and temporary."
"Initially, each released fish will cost the fisher a few hundred dollars because these fish would normally be harvested," Scholten said. "Consequently, if these females survive the netting process [and being set free], they will likely be available for harvest in a year or two with more roe for the commercial fisher."
Kelley said he couldn't predict yet whether any new restrictions would be positive or negative for the fishing industry. He agreed that the most important thing was to secure the welfare of the fish population, but questioned whether Bettoli's suggested approach was necessary. "Whether this affects the fish," he said, "only time will tell."
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