on Wed, Apr. 14, 2004
Seek to Raise Endangered Caspian Sea Sturgeon in Florida Ponds
South Florida Sun-Sentinel Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
- Two South Florida businessmen
who sell some of the world's most expensive fish eggs -- caviar
from Caspian Sea sturgeon -- are trying to raise these endangered
fish in Florida.
Ukrainian immigrants Mark Zaslavsky and Mark Gelman, owners of
Caviar, which sells gourmet foods, began importing live Caspian
Sea sturgeon last June and now have 100 of them on a fish farm
in Pierson, west of Daytona Beach.
Of the 100, which range from 5 to 10 years old, more than 60
are beluga sturgeon and the remainder are osetra and sevruga varieties,
which also produce caviar.
The highest-grade beluga caviar now sells at more than $100 per
ounce. Prime-grade osetra and sevruga caviar retails for around
$60 and $44 an ounce, respectively.
But the two partners, who brought the Caspian Sea fish to Miami
from a holding facility in Germany by air freight, won't see caviar
from the fishery anytime soon. "If everything goes well,
we'll have caviar available for sale in seven or eight years,"
said Zaslavsky, Marky's president. "We're trying to sustain
and restore the sturgeon population," he added.
Marky's owners are financing the project, called Sturgeon AquaFarms
Ltd., and are working in partnership with Gene Evans, a Volusia
County fish farmer. So far, the two partners have invested more
the $300,000 in the sturgeon project.
Beluga, the rarest of the three varieties of Caspian Sea sturgeon,
normally take "30 years to go from fry to egg-laying in their
natural environment," said Frank Chapman, an associate professor
of fisheries and aquatic science at the University of Florida
who has been working on the project.
But in captivity in Florida, with ample food and free of natural
enemies -- particularly sturgeon fishermen who typically kill
females for their eggs -- the sturgeon can mature and lay eggs
much faster, he said. Beluga sturgeon can live up to 100 years
and reach 30 feet in length.
World demand for caviar and overfishing have threatened the species
in the Caspian Sea, and attempts to control the international
caviar trade have been thwarted by poaching and black market activities.
Chapman, who raised domestic sturgeon as a student at the University
of California at Davis and brought this technology to UF in 1990,
met Zaslavsky several years ago. The businessman suggested they
work together on raising imported sturgeon.
"There are four sturgeon farms in Florida and Mark has the
only beluga sturgeon farm in the United States," the Colombian-born
Chapman said. "If we can pull this off, it will be one of
the biggest things we can do for the environment. Other people
can use the same technology. This will take pressure off, and
the wild population can come back," he added.
The Florida Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Aquaculture
Development also sees the AquaFarms project as a sound way of
ensuring a supply of sturgeon fry and fingerlings for the future.
"This is probably going to set the pace for sturgeon farming
in the U.S.," said Mark Berrigan, the Aquaculture Bureau
But the environmental community is divided on importing Russian
"We are opposed to aquaculture that requires the importation
of the highly endangered beluga sturgeon from their natural habitat
in the Caspian Sea," said Sunny Wu, spokeswoman for Caviar
Emptor, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works to protect endangered
Caspian Sea sturgeon. "Rather than promoting recovery, removal
of sturgeon from the wild to support aquaculture abroad further
depletes a species already on the brink of extinction."
Caviar Emptor has urged the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species, a move that
would ban beluga imports into the United States,
Chapman and Sturgeon AquaFarm's promoters, however, see what
they're doing as supplementing other techniques to save the sturgeon,
such as tightening controls on poaching in the Russian Federation
and on illegal caviar exports.
"We're doing this project to save the sturgeon," Chapman
said. "If we don't start now, we'll never be able to do it."
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