Week of September 23, 2004
businessmen at odds with environmentalists over caviar production
caviar businessmen say a dispute with the US government and
environmentalists could hamper a $20 million industry.
Mark Zaslavsky and Mark Gelman - owners of Marky's, a Miami
caviar-importing company established in 1985 - say they and
other firms are seeking to develop sturgeon farming in Florida
but are bumping into environmental regulations
With a potential to generate annual revenues of $20 million
and diminish the amount of caviar imports, Mr. Zaslavsky and
Mr. Gelman say they are at odds with the US Fish & Wildlife
Service and an organization called Caviar Emptor over their
The US imports $7.2 billion more in seafood than it exports,
said Mark Berrigan, bureau chief for aquaculture development
at the Florida Department of Agriculture. Mr. Berrigan said
augmenting the domestic supply benefits consumers in various
"Increase in production would eventually affect the market,
especially with the difficulties in getting the product from
Russia," he said. "But it is a long-term process.
It would not be an overnight thing."
Government officials say beluga sturgeon could escape into US
rivers and interbreed with native fish.
"We are concerned with sturgeons brought in from the Caspian
Sea. If there is an accident, foreign species can transmit diseases,
so this is very concerning," said Robert Gable, chief of
division of scientific authority of the US Fish & Wildlife
The federal agency is considering restricting production of
the beluga sturgeon in Florida for commercial purposes. Environmentalists
say the beluga, originally found in the Caspian Sea, can devastate
other sturgeons in Florida.
Already supplying hotel chains such as Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton
and Westin as well as local restaurants with the caviar they
import, Mr. Zaslavsky and Mr. Gelman, two Russian immigrants,
decided to bring Caspian Sea beluga sturgeons to Florida to
breed the fish in closed-circuit aquafarming tanks.
"We are trying to provide consumers high-quality Caspian
Sea caviar by having them produced in the United States,"
Mr. Zaslavsky said. "We have been working on this project
for seven years. If banned, we won't be able to sell."
Caviar Emptor representatives say the species is threatened
by habitat modification, degradation, over-exploitation for
trade and limited natural reproduction.
The environmentalists - made up of SeaWeb, the Natural Resources
Defense Council and the University of Miami's Pew Institute
for Ocean Science - want to prevent extinction of the sturgeon,
said Pew Institute officials.
"If the beluga sturgeon is developed in Florida, it can
harm the sturgeon in its native environment," said Ellen
Pikitch, executive director of the institute. "The US government
is concerned about a potential harm to native species."
While forbidding beluga production in Florida, the federal government's
pending decision could allow the importation of caviar from
non-traditional sturgeon-producing countries such as France,
Germany and China, where farming is becoming commonplace.
Officials at the US Fish & Wildlife Service say aquaculture
of foreign sturgeon species in the US is a threat to the recovery
of several native species listed under the Endangered Species
"We have to be concerned with exotic-species farming,"
said John Field, a fisheries specialist at the Fish & Wildlife
Service. "Some species, like the beluga, have the potential
to escape in the wild and transmit diseases."
But Mr. Zaslavsky said Florida-farmed beluga cannot harm native
species. He said the state has regulations based on best-management
practices that effectively control aquacultural production of
non-native and native sturgeon, reducing the risk of incidental
introduction of non-native diseases and parasites.
Mr. Zaslavsky said his beluga sturgeon are housed in closed-circuit
aquaculture tanks that make it impossible for the fish to escape
into the wild or come in contact with native species.
"Not only are our tanks completely covered, but we also
took our sturgeons from a farm. When fish are brought from a
farm, there is no threat to the environment," he said.
The Florida Department of Agriculture has made a request with
the US Department of the Interior to avoid the potential ban.
A decision is expected Oct. 21, after the Fish & Wildlife
Service studies a petition by Florida sturgeon farmers.
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