|Monday, August 11, 2003
Importer bets on farmed caviar
Posted August 11, 2003
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 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
Zaslavsky thinks that, if he succeeds, he could help reduce 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 Marky's
Caviar of Miami. "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 in Pierson, 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 associate professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences
providing technical expertise to Zaslavsky.
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,
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. 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.
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 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
The wildlife service is expected to rule on the status of beluga
sturgeons by Jan. 31.
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