Caviar importer gambling
on farm-raised beluga sturgeon
By MIKE BRANOM, Associated Press Writer
PIERSON — Mark Zaslavsky
reached into the large water tank and grabbed the gray, torpedo-shaped
fish as it rose to the surface.
The fish, a 4-foot beluga sturgeon, flailed in Zaslavsky's arms,
turning his effort to show off his vision into a soggy, man-vs.-fish
The fine foods importer is willing to take a wet beating as
he pursues his dream to be the first in the United States to
farm-raise one of the world's rarest and most expensive delicacies
— beluga caviar.
Zaslavsky believes if he succeeds he could help reduce the
pressure on the central Asian freshwater fish that produces
the treasured eggs — and make money.
"About five years ago when supplies of beluga got scarce, we
decided to bring fish (to America) and grow our own fish," said
Zaslavsky, president of Miami-based Marky's
Caviar. "It's our part to save the wild population in the
Twenty-five beluga sturgeon — prehistoric creatures that can
reach 1,800 pounds — have been imported since the spring to
an aquafarm 30 miles west of Daytona Beach, with another 25
on the way. Other species are farmed across the nation, with
California's white sturgeon industry a notable success story,
but this is the inaugural American try at growing beluga's pearls
"We are the trailblazers here," said Frank Chapman, a University
of Florida assistant professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences
providing technical expertise to Zaslavsky. "It's not so much
technology that held us back, but bravery — or stupidity, however
you want to look at it."
Farming beluga taxes the patience, as the females need up to
30 years to reach egg-laying maturity. Zaslavsky and partner
Gene Evans, owner of the aquafarm in western Volusia County,
won't know for at least two years if they've succeeded, judging
by whether they can artificially fertilize eggs and hatch babies.
"I think at that point," Evans said, "you're going to say we're
in the sturgeon business."
The first shipment of beluga cost
Zaslavsky $4,000, plus years of frustration while working his
caviar contacts and cutting through red tape in Russia and the
United States. Until those fish arrived in Miami for shipment
to Evans' 2,700-acre farm near Pierson, there were only two
belugas in America — and they were in aquariums, Chapman said.
It could be as late as 2010 before the farm can deliver caviar.
But there would be a payoff at the end of the wait, as that
roe currently retails for upward of $35 per ounce. Fresh sturgeon
meat could be ready for sale a few years earlier, and it sells
for $14 to $15 per pound wholesale with the smoked product reaching
$22 per pound.
Also swimming in Evans' tanks are two other species of sturgeon:
sevruga and osetra. Those fish produce less coveted caviar.
"With nature and the economy, it's a risky business," Evans
said. "Is it impossible? By no means."
The 63-year-old's drawl and ranch-hand looks strike a sharp
contrast to Zaslavsky, a 50-year-old Ukrainian immigrant with
a deep accent and ponytail. The two met through Chapman's aquaculture
One potential obstacle already threatens to cut short the partners'
Sturgeon stocks in the Caspian are thought to be in such low numbers
— down 90 percent over the last 20 years, according to one study
— that the U.S. government is considering listing beluga sturgeon
as endangered. Such a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
would effectively kill sales of beluga caviar in America.
Zaslavsky fears that if beluga is listed as endangered, the
industry would be pushed underground. "It would be like a drug,"
Wild beluga sturgeon are found mostly in the Caspian, an enormous
lake of cold, salty water that borders Russia, three former
Soviet republics and Iran. Caviar has been harvested here since
the days of Aristotle, but pollution, loss of spawning habitats
and overfishing has taken a heavy toll.
The health of the sturgeon stocks is such a contentious issue
between environmentalists and the caviar industry that even
basic facts are in dispute. According to conservation groups,
the caviar trade from the Caspian is estimated to be worth $100
million a year — but Zaslavsky said that number is inflated
Ironically, it could be an animal native to Florida that could
save the nascent beluga industry from a premature death. In
1987, alligators were struck from the list of endangered species
after 20 years because farms helped restore the population.
"There is a precedent with the way alligators were handled
years ago," said Marie Maltese, a biologist with the wildlife
service. "So, exemptions for aquaculture are a possibility that
could be considered."
The wildlife service is expected to rule on the status of beluga
sturgeons by Jan. 31.
Environmental groups don't believe the production from aquafarms
can ever tip the balance away from the overharvested Caspian.
But TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of the World
Wildlife Fund, favors any solution, however small, that would
relieve pressure on wild beluga stocks.
"No question that beluga sturgeon is a species in very bad
shape," said Craig Hoover, deputy director for Traffic North
America. "But let's think of ways that we can be creative in
supporting positive efforts. Aquaculture is a thing that we
would want to encourage."
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