A fresh, steaming fillet of perfectly sautéed Kentucky-raised paddlefish sat on the table at Chef Jeremy Ashby’s Lexington eatery, Azur Restaurant & Patio, and the Kentucky Seafood Cook-off winner stuck in his fork for a bite.
“A paddlefish is just flat-out weird—it looks like a duck-billed platypus,” he said with a laugh. “They’re harvested for the caviar, so it’s not typically eaten. It’s got a pretty harmless taste … I wouldn’t sit here and eat pounds and pounds of it, but it’s fine for a meal.”
Like a bevy of other slippery, swimming creatures, paddlefish is a product of Kentucky aquaculture. Agriculturally speaking, the business is relatively new to the state, and thanks to work from the world-renowned aquaculture program at Kentucky State University and people like Angela Caporelli, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s aquaculture coordinator and marketing specialist, the industry is slowly getting some fins under it.
“When I came to the state 10 years ago, it was right when the tobacco settlement money came flying into the state,” said Caporelli, a native of New Hampshire. “There was a big interest in diversifying farms, and aquaculture was part of that. There was money that allowed farmers to make ponds and set up operations.”
But the going is tough, and “there’s no silver bullet,” she said. As with any crop, raising fish comes with ever-rising feed, processing, electric and shipping bills. Not only that, Caporelli said many people—even eat-local fanatics—still struggle with the concept of closed-system fish farming.
“It’s not wild, and the fish eat poop, and they eat dead fish,” she put it bluntly, pointing out that it’s not how natural ecosystems typically work. “When you have too much of something, you get too much of something else, like disease or bacteria. I can understand points against it.”
Caporelli pointed out that in the wild, fish also eat fish and waste, and that most fish consumed in the United States is farmed overseas and is not regulated by FDA standards. Only a small percentage of most supermarket fish are wild caught. So her solution is that consumers might as well get local, farm-raised fish and know what they are eating is fresh, adheres to FDA standards and supports the state’s economy.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of environmental groups that don’t want to see fish farming,” she said. “And I don’t understand, because it’s a very efficient way to grow protein in a very sustainable way.”
Ashby points out another issue that drives him to use Kentucky aquaculture.
“We are running out of fish in our oceans, and I think aquaculture is a great solution,” he said. “I think that, inevitably in the distant future, we don’t have a choice, and I’m glad Kentucky is at the forefront of the research.”
Ashby said the opportunities for practical applications of Kentucky aquaculture are endless.
“I believe it should be presented more in supermarkets,” he said. “You always see trout, and you always see catfish, so I believe we should rip out everything that’s not raised here and replace it with Kentucky fish. And every single restaurant in Kentucky probably has a fish sandwich on its lunch menu. I’m not saying replace the fancy dinner halibut; I’m saying that junky piece of tilapia you got from Thailand—get it from Kentucky.”
Lewis Shuckman at Shuckman’s Fish Company & Smokery in Louisville is starting to see more of that happen, and chefs are realizing the benefits of local, farm-raised products.
“Aquaculture and the industry are thriving because they enable restaurants and retailers to have certain species year-round,” he said. “Chefs are being very creative with local and regional ingredients now. And the chefs love to experiment and be exciting and do different things. It’s a big win for chefs here in Kentucky.”
But Ashby said many chefs still do not have easy or regular access to Kentucky aquaculture. Typically, Caporelli is his main contact for obtaining local fish. She lets both chefs and the public know when fish are being harvested and educates them about new products.
“She’s kind of like the instigator,” Ashby said. “She’ll drop things by or talk about the products out there, and the next thing you know there’s some on your back door.”
Ashby said he works directly with several growers of the common Kentucky “crop,” large and smallmouth bass.
Caporelli said shrimp grow well in the state, and many sales take place pond side at the farm. In the fall, farmers will host shrimp—more commonly referred to as freshwater prawn—festivals and organize activities for people who want to stock up on the critters to feed their families.
“A lot of people are growing prawns for their own personal consumption,” Caporelli said.
Shuckman said there even is a growing movement to raise cave shrimp in abandoned coal mines in eastern Kentucky. They have a constant flow of fresh spring water and a natural drainage system that erases the need for costly aeration systems.
Dan Moreland raises freshwater prawn in the northern Kentucky town of Butler. He began his operation in 1995 and now has three ponds for his summer crop of shrimp to supplement his cattle farming. He was raised on a “basic Kentucky farm with tobacco, cows, hay, corn, the whole nine yards” and sold insurance as his primary career, but has since retired and sees farming now almost like a hobby.
In April and May, Moreland nurses the baby prawns in four 700-gallon tanks, and by June he releases them to the ponds. He described the summer pond crop as a “cakewalk” since he feeds only once in the morning and simply monitors water quality.
By the end of September, the ponds are harvested in a simple process that involves draining the water, and Moreland then brings in a mobile processing unit from Kentucky State University and hires the local FFA chapter to help with the process. He harvests approximately 2,000 pounds of shrimp.
“I have people who come in regularly and buy them right out of the pond,” Moreland said, but admitted the crop overall is not as profitable as he would like it to be since expenses are so high. “I’m making some money, but it’s not really profitable.”
Some of his prawns are sold to the Asian market in Cincinnati; some are shipped to Canada; some head to the farmers market in Frankfort; and he sells some to distributors. Moreland said he has not had much luck selling directly to retailers or restaurants, probably because of the cost—typically about $13 per pound. He said he makes a slight profit from the tilapia he raises in the pond with the shrimp—a natural way to keep the water clean.
“It’s tough; it’s tough,” he said. “We’re playing on buying local.”
So why does he keep doing it? Moreland said, “I’ve got everything done. I’ve got the ponds dug. I have everything set up, so why not?”
Connecting more farmers like Moreland with more chefs like Ashby is the key.
“The aquaculture farms really just amaze me,” Ashby said.
Even though the products may be slightly more costly and the taste not the same as wild-caught fish and shrimp from the ocean, he still wants them, partly because of the freshness.
“And I’m finding fascination with artisanal-style products, and for some reason when I hold that organism or piece of work, whether it’s a bell pepper or a fish, and talk to the people involved in the process of raising it, I connect with it,” Ashby said. “Smallmouth bass is certainly not ahi tuna or sea bass, and it’s never going to be, but there is something really interesting that I connect with whenever I can lightly sauté some bass that’s raised on a local farm, and then utilize things that are native to the area as well—like some little heirloom, white bud potatoes or lazy housewife beans and maybe a cushaw squash—and these things are all indigenous, pre-industrial revolution, ancient-to-this-area stuff. I guess there’s a wonder that I have. As a chef, I think as long as I have good, fresh ingredients, anything is going to be good.”
Aquaculture products have a nonthreatening taste without a fishy flavor, he said. Trout, bass, shrimp, caviar, paddlefish and catfish are almost like “entry level” fish in terms of flavor and are “very, very forgiving.”
Ashby said his peers from coastal states laugh at him when they get together to cook seafood.
“Luckily, we’re packing some bourbon, and we’re kind of bad asses, but it’s great, and I’m like, ‘Here’s my pile of freshwater shrimp and caviar and my catfish,’ and then the guy next to me has crabs that are live and running around the table and the king crab legs that are enormous,” he said with a laugh. “They do respect the fact that this is what we have. They laugh about it, but they think it’s awesome.”
He said coastal chefs also acknowledge the need for aquaculture from a sustainability standpoint, and they respect his ability to cook some amazing dishes using what he has from Kentucky.
“I think it really shows a lot,” he said. “We go there [to seafood cook-offs in coastal states], and we’re the underdog, but we’re proud of what we have. They’ve got their blue fin tuna and big diver scallops, and I’ve got my catfish and my country ham and my freaking bourbon.”
Food preparation goes a long way, but ultimately wild-caught seafood really can’t be compared to Kentucky aquaculture from a taste standpoint.
“It’s a different species,” Caporelli said. “You can’t compare them.”
She said freshwater prawn, for example, has more of a lobster texture than a traditional ocean shrimp texture, and since aquaculture products have no salt content, they cook differently and need to be treated differently than regular seafood. Caporelli often organizes cooking demonstrations and tastings across the state to introduce people to these new flavors.
“When it comes to those shrimp, they’re not the best thing to eat on the earth. They’re just not,” Ashby added. “Don’t think for a second that you’re going to be biting into a wild-caught Gulf shrimp. It just doesn’t have the sweet, salty flavor. And the texture is a little different, but it’s a viable food source. I would much rather eat those than any farm-raised shrimp from Thailand just because of the horror stories I hear with how they actually do their closed systems, which is with tons of antibiotics.”
Shuckman said consumers usually can expect a milder taste from aquaculture products.
“Both the wild and the farmed have excellent flavor, excellent texture,” he said, and consumers benefit from aquaculture products that can be farmed when the wild-caught season ends.
“The fishmongers at the stores today are extremely educated. They know a whole lot about fish and seafood because they’re going to classes and learning about species,” Shuckman said. “They’re a lot more knowledgeable than they used to be, and chefs are constantly studying and reading and following up on different species and applications.”
At Shuckman’s, Kentucky spoonfish caviar is the specialty. Shuckman said the flavor and texture are phenomenal, and the price is right. He said he fought an uphill battle against European caviar, and now his Kentucky spoonfish caviar is trademarked and distributed throughout the country.
“We saw some opportunities in the marketplace due to the fact that Kentucky has more free underground springs than any other state in the country,” he said, adding that he gets a lot of his spoonfish from Lake Cumberland, “but the fishing locations are extremely secret.”
Shuckman’s Fish Company & Smokery also puts a Kentucky twist on its smoked fish, utilizing the charred interiors of bourbon barrels in the smoking process. It is just one of the ways Shuckman keeps more business in the state.
“Whatever we can do to help the producers—we always pay more for local because we want farmers to have that positive attitude and continue growing whatever it is they’re growing,” he said. “It is a fascinating side of income for farming. A lot of people in Kentucky just don’t know about it, but it’s growing and will continue to grow because the demand is there. The consumption of fish and seafood has never been higher than it is now.”
He said the challenge now is finding ways to keep costs down. Many entities, such as Alltech, KSU, farmers and distilleries around the state, are working to develop cheaper, protein-rich feed to replace expensive fish meal.
Despite higher costs at the onset, Caporelli said the benefits of supporting Kentucky aquaculture—sustainability, nutrition and buying local—should be obvious to consumers. Her job is to solve the “how” to keep more Kentucky products consumed in the state.
For now, brave chefs and retailers are looking for more opportunities to buy and prepare Kentucky aquaculture products in hopes that the public will become connoisseurs.