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W.VA. OPENS NATION’S 1ST COAL-MINE FISHERY

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Fish from mine water?

A fish farmer and former miner have opened the nation's first coal-mine fishery, a venture they hope will help turn a landlocked state known for its coal into one of the largest U.S. producers of fish.The new industry could also help put laid-off miners and others back to work and lead to business with fish-loving Japan.

"We are going to raise millions and millions of fish," said John Perdue, an aide to Gov. Gaston Caperton who has been working on the idea since he was an assistant agriculture commissioner nine years ago.

The Minaqua fish farm, at the mouth of an abandoned coal mine near Beckley, harvested its first rainbow trout last month and will harvest its first Arctic Char in April, said co-owner Edsel Redden, a former coal miner.

The key is the mine water from rain and underground springs. It is ideal for breeding fish because of its abundance, purity and temperature, a perfect 55 degrees year-round.

"Those three things are very rare," said Wayne Van Toever, another co-owner who launched the venture with The Anchor Group Inc., a coal company.

To focus on the West Virginia venture, Van Toever in 1994 closed a fish farm he had operated for more than a decade in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Abandoned mines in southern West Virginia produce from 500 to 20,000 gallons of water a minute, Perdue said.

The water is pulled out of the mine through a big pipe. The water then is filtered and flows into large circular tanks in a building the size of a football field.

"The conditions down here with water supplies are phenomenal compared to anywhere else," Van Toever said.

Caperton, who is leading a trade mission to Japan this week, said he has been touting West Virginia fish to the Japanese. Minaqua - which Perdue said is the first of its kind in the country - already sells its fish to several grocery store chains.

"You will see West Virginia one day as one of the largest producers of fish in the United States," Caperton said.

Minaqua now employs 22 people but could hire more than 300 when it opens additional fish farms in Wyoming and McDowell counties, Redden said.

The Arctic Char could become the company's featured fish. Currently, it is grown in fewer than 10 farms in the world and is considered a delicacy in Japan and Europe, said Van Toever, who imported the Arctic Char from his Canadian farm.

"Our quality of fish and Arctic Char can't be compared. . . . It will melt in your mouth," said Perdue, who has served as an adviser to Minaqua.

The company's future depends in part on its ability to find trained workers.

"You are dealing with environmental quality. This isn't just jobs throwing feed into the water," Redden said.