Cook: Roe, roe gently down the Tennessee River

Cook: Roe, roe gently down the Tennessee River

January 5th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Ever tasted Tennessee paddlefish caviar?

Me neither. Not sure I want to.

I've read it tastes both salty and buttery and, if it's a bad batch, muddy. The little glob of eggs looks like a pile of silver BBs left in the rain for a week.

But maybe we should try some. After all, if you purchase a Tennessee hunting or fishing license, there's a chance you'll help fund the folks who harvest paddlefish caviar worth boatloads of money.

In 2009, commercial paddlefish fishermen harvested more than $3 million worth of paddlefish flesh and eggs (also called "roe") from Tennessee rivers, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

In 2006, it was $9.3 million.

"This tangy, buttery roe has a firm texture," states "Paddlefish caviar has a rich aroma and a pungent flavor."

So would my old Nikes if you dropped hot butter in them. But you wouldn't buy those for $25, which is what charges for one tiny ounce of paddlefish caviar.

One pound costs $400.

The paddlefish -- also called spoonbill -- looks just like its name. A long sturgeon-like body is finished off with a fat exclamation-point snout, as if the paddle on your grandpa's old fishing boat got glued to a big fish's nose.

Able to reach lengths of 4 or 5 feet, the paddlefish has existed for millions of years and once filled waters in many parts of the United States. The TWRA allows commercial fishing of it only on certain reservoirs and rivers in the state.

A group of commercial paddlefish fishermen wants to change that.

Last May, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law charging the TWRA to create a plan that would study the feasibility of opening more Tennessee waters for commercial paddlefish fishing.

The law also created the Commercial Fisheries Advisory Committee, a group of nine volunteer representatives from the commercial fishing industry. In August, they asked the TWRA to open more waters for fishing.

In 2011, there were 70 licensed commercial paddlefish fishermen in Tennessee. By comparison, the TWRA estimates about 900,000 sport anglers in the state.

Before any more waters are opened for commercial fishing, a comprehensive study must be done to evaluate at least three main factors in the proposed waters.

First: Population levels of paddlefish.

Second: Whether the nets used in commercial fishing would damage the multimillion-dollar sport-fishing industry. In 2001, striped bass sport fishing created $2.5 million in revenue, according to the TWRA, and by-catch from commercial fishing could damage that.

Third: Levels of contaminants -- such as mercury and PCBs -- in the proposed waters.

The TWRA estimates the study to cost $700,000. Who's going to pay for it?

If lawmakers direct the TWRA (which receives no money from the state's general fund) to pay for this study -- which originated from the commercial fishing lobby -- then it will be forced to do so using money earned from hunting and fishing licenses.

Like yours and mine.

"I think the funding should come from either appropriation or an outside source other than hunting and fishing license holders," said Bobby Wilson, chief of fisheries for the TWRA.

Through Jan. 11, the TWRA has an open-comment period via email or mail. On Jan. 12-13, the TWRA has a commission meeting at The Chattanoogan hotel. The public is invited to voice its opinion.

I believe the study would greatly benefit the TWRA and its vital mission for our state.

The state should fund the study, not from hunting and fishing license holders, but by charging the commercial paddlefish industry, then create its own paddlefish caviar processing center, similar to the one opened in 2007 in Oklahoma.

According to The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City, the state's Wildlife Department earned $3 million in the first two years of making and selling caviar.

Or, of course, we could just leave the ancient paddlefish alone and eat something else that tastes like salt and butter and sometimes mud.

David Cook can be reached at