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Crystal Lake residents are in a paddlefish predicament

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By John Foster

Since March, 1,000 prehistoric-looking fish have been trolling through Crystal Lake with their huge mouths open, filtering plankton through feather-like screens. They’re called paddlefish for their paddle-shaped snout, which composes about a third of their body length. They’re native to the Mississippi River watershed, but have never been stocked in Crystal Lake before.  Although they’re not much more than a foot long now, during the next 10 years they will grow to more than 5 feet long and more than 60 pounds. Board members of the homeowners’ association believe the fish will earn the neighborhood income without cost. But some residents are afraid the enormous fish will harm the bass population in the lake. The homeowners’ association approved a contract with Big Fish Farms LLC in February. The company wanted to place about 1,000 paddlefish – 10 fish per acre – in Crystal Lake, company owner Karen Koerner said. The fish will forage naturally and grow larger than other fish in the lake, but they won’t reproduce. In eight to 10 years, crews from Big Fish Farms will drag a specialized net through the lake to remove the paddlefish. They’ll remove the eggs for caviar, and sell the meat. As the Caspian Sea sturgeon population declines, Koerner believes she’s at the edge of a trend in paddlefish caviar. She hopes to make Kentucky-raised paddlefish caviar into a product with worldwide appeal.  Jim Martin, president of the Crystal Lake homeowners’ association, uses the analogy of a cattle ranch to explain the arrangement in an e-mail to residents.  “The rancher (Big Fish Farms) has cattle (Paddlefish) and breeds the cattle (Paddlefish) to produce calves (Fingerlings),” he said. “The rancher then puts the calves out to pasture (Crystal Lake)... The only worry the rancher has is that the people who run the pasture (Crystal Lake Club, Inc.) will not stop coyotes (poachers) from killing and taking the calves (Fingerlings) and cattle (Paddlefish).” In exchange for letting Koerner use their lake to house her fish, the neighborhood association will receive 20 percent of the profits. Martin said a rough estimate is $50,000. That money will allow the association to make improvements around the neighborhood such as dredging the lake, repairing docks or improving playground equipment, without increasing homeowners’ dues beyond the current rate of about $80 annually per household, Martin said. Many Crystal Lake residents are serious fishermen. For that reason, Martin and other members of the association researched the impact of the fish with scientists at Kentucky State University and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Martin said he’s determined the impact of adding paddlefish to the lake will be minimal, if at all. “If we thought the paddlefish would harm sport fishing in the lake, we would’ve never put paddlefish in the lake,” he said. Steven Mims, a professor of aquaculture at KSU said he’s studied paddlefish ranching for 14 years and he’s never observed a negative impact on bass or bluegill.  Those fish feed by the bank, while paddlefish feed in open water, he said. Resident Tom Siefert isn’t convinced. He’s concerned the paddlefish will eat the same plankton as shad do, disrupting the food chain of bass which feed on shad.  And he’s worried that the net used to remove the paddlefish will harm other fish in the lake. “I’m still totally against it,” he said. Siefert said he moved to Crystal Lake for the fishing. As a homeowner who pays association dues, he’s entitled to every other fish in the lake, so he doesn’t want paddlefish in his lake unless he can snag one, fillet it and put it on his grill, he said.  But that would constitute as theft from Big Fish Farms under the contract. Siefert has an analogy of his own. He said to imagine if crews planted corn on the tee-boxes at Oldham County Country Club and told members they could still golf, but can’t disturb the corn. Siefert is considering legal action. “I just want them out of the lake,” he said. Martin said it’s too late to get the paddlefish out of the lake – it’s a done deal. Fishermen can’t catch them on a hook, and for the next few years, paddlefish will remain too small to catch with a net.  Koerner said she has paddlefish in a couple thousand acres of water throughout Kentucky and Ohio. She’s never had a complaint about harming the bass population in lakes where she’s had fish for a few years, she said. “Sometimes, you get really passionate sport-fishermen concerned,” she said, “and it doesn’t matter how much science you throw at them, they’re not gonna like it.”   E-mail us about this story at: jfoster@oldhamera.com