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    Sunday, August 10, 2003

Business | Naples Daily News

Caviar importer gambling on farm-raised beluga sturgeon

Sunday, August 10, 2003

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.

Mark Zaslavsky, president of Marky's Caviar, holds up a sturgeon in this undated handout photo. Zaslavsky, a fine foods importer believes he can be the first in the nation to farm-raise one of the world's rarest and most expensive delicacies, beluga caviar. AP Photo/Marky's Caviar

Mark Zaslavsky, president of Marky's Caviar, holds up a sturgeon in this undated handout photo. Zaslavsky, a fine foods importer believes he can be the first in the nation to farm-raise one of the world's rarest and most expensive delicacies, beluga caviar. AP Photo/Marky's Caviar

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 wrestling match.

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 Caspian Sea."

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 commercially.

"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.

Beluga sturgeon swim in this undated handout photo. Mark Zaslavsky, a fine foods importer believes he can be the first in the nation to farm-raise one of the world's rarest and most expensive delicacies, beluga caviar. AP Photo/Marky's Caviar

Beluga sturgeon swim in this undated handout photo. Mark Zaslavsky, a fine foods importer believes he can be the first in the nation to farm-raise one of the world's rarest and most expensive delicacies, beluga caviar. AP Photo/Marky's Caviar

"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 program.

One potential obstacle already threatens to cut short the partners' caviar dreams.

Tins full of Marky's Caviar are shown in this undated handout photo. Mark Zaslavsky, president of Marky's Caviar, believes he can be the first in the nation to farm-raise one of the world's rarest and most expensive delicacies, beluga caviar. AP Photo/Marky's Caviar

Tins full of Marky's Caviar are shown in this undated handout photo. Mark Zaslavsky, president of Marky's Caviar, believes he can be the first in the nation to farm-raise one of the world's rarest and most expensive delicacies, beluga caviar. AP Photo/Marky's Caviar

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," he said.

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 tenfold.

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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