The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 27, 2012

Aquaculture industry promises bright future

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s fledgling aquaculture industry holds the promise of a bright future, and no operation typifies this better than a Raleigh County one, Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Steve Miller said Tuesday.

Blessed with cold, clean water, West Virginia could reap some dramatic benefits in the future by raising fish, Miller told the Agriculture and Agri-business Committee.

Miller pointed to Mountaineer Trout, a setup just below Sophia, and launched at an abandoned coal mine site more than a decade ago by Tom Ort.

In that operation, clean water flows at a rate of up to 1,200 gallons a minute, and is about 55 degrees, conducive to raising trout, Miller said.

Upwards of half a million pounds of fish are produced there annually, he noted.

“Operator Tom Ort is doing an excellent job,” Miller said.

Overall, the aquaculture business reflects an output of between $2 million and $3 million a year, the deputy agriculture commissioner said.

Miller said one hurdle was cleared three years ago when the Legislature agreed to consider fish manure no different than waste materials excreted by farm animals.

Two years ago, the Legislature enacted a law that declared the fishing industry as agriculture and designated his department as the lead agency, Miller said.

Another outgrowth was the creation of an advisory board that meets monthly. Ort is a member.

Miller said another key development came when a distinction was made between wild fish that thrive in streams and are governed by the DNR exclusively, and commercial fish such as those produced by Ort’s operation.

One key need, however, is a critical one — a processor.

“That’s what the industry needs today,” Miller said.

“If you talk to any of our fish producers, especially our friend in Raleigh County, the need is a processor. He knows how to raise fish but he doesn’t know how to process. That may be an opportunity for someone in the state to look into that.”

Miller told of a dairy farmer in Monroe County who inquired about raising fish for a side income.

“Mr. Ort at Mountaineer Trout has proven we can make money at it,” the agriculture official said.

Several legislators agreed that the fledgling industry could prove to be a bonanza for entrepreneurs.

“I think there’s a future in this industry,” Delegate Larry Williams, D-Preston, said.

“It certainly opens up another opportunity for agriculture and is something we need to explore more. I think there’s a real opportunity for farmers in the future.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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