the Jun. 13, 2005 issue of TIME magazine
Posted Monday, Jun. 13, 2005
for Black Gold
BATTLING BUREAUCRATS OVER BELUGA CAVIAR, A GROUP OF ENTREPRENEURS
MAY FINALLY NET THEIR TASTY TREASURE
Zaslavsky sleeps with the fishes. No, he's not the victim
of a Godfather-style rubout. But when Sturgeon Aquafarms imported
its first live belugas after a seven-year slog of red tape,
he slept next to the tank holding the five 50-lb. creatures
on the flight from Germany to protect his investment. (He
had trucked them to Germany from Russia.) Zaslavsky hopes
to produce the first American-grown beluga sturgeon and caviar,
in 36 tanks on the 1,700-acre farm of his partner Gene Evans
just outside Pierson, Fla. To fish farmers, beluga is the
Holy Grail: a species whose eggs can be worth nearly $200
per oz. and whose life-span stretches 100 years. He figures
he can harvest 10 tons of caviar annually from the herd of
some 200,000 6-ft. creatures he plans to keep on the farm.
an industry without controversy. Environmentalists are wary
of aquaculture in general because of pollution from fish wastes
and the genetic threat to native species, and they fear that
beluga farming will only feed caviar demand and further endanger
stocks in the Caspian Sea, source of 90% of the world's supply.
who along with Mark Gelman is a co-owner of Marky's, one of
the country's leading caviar merchants, knows the market potential
is significant. The U.S. imports 60% of the world's beluga
caviar--well over five tons in 2003. Domestic beluga could
be worth more than $20 million annually, double the $10 million
Marky's takes in today.
or salted sturgeon eggs, hasn't always been so valuable. In
the 19th century sturgeon were so plentiful in U.S. waters
that bars gave caviar away. Overfishing destroyed the industry.
Domestic fish farmers are now reviving it, marketing American
caviar from such species as paddlefish, trout and hackleback.
From white sturgeon alone, U.S. aquaculture is producing about
10,000 lbs. of caviar annually; at $30 per oz. retail, it
has become a $5 million-a-year industry. But to Zaslavsky
and other sea snobs, American caviar is nothing like beluga.
"It's like a $10 wine compared with a $350 wine. You
can't compare the two," sniffs Zaslavsky. Sturgeon Aquafarms
isn't the only fish in the aquacultural sea. Kevin Hopkins,
director of aquaculture at the University of Hawaii, distributed
his first batch of Hawaiian osetra caviar in February, after
raising the sturgeon for 10 years; he hopes to have Hawaiian
beluga caviar within a decade.
prospects of both operations improved dramatically in March
when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a surprising--and
controversial--ruling permitting aquaculture facilities to
raise and sell beluga meat and eggs. The environmental group
Caviar Emptor had long been pushing for an outright ban on
trade in the beluga, arguing that the species' Caspian population
has fallen 90% and might soon be extinct. "This is a
grievous mistake," says Ellen Pikitch, one of Caviar
Emptor's founders and director of the Pew Institute for Ocean
Science. "The beluga is the most valuable fish in the
world, and when a fish reaches that level of value and is
so threatened, the best way to save it is to completely cut
off the market."
letting caviar retailers like Zaslavsky raise sturgeon is
like letting the fox raise the chickens. The caviar trade
is not exactly squeaky clean, and Optimus, the parent company
of Marky's, recently agreed to pay a $1 million fine for buying
smuggled caviar in 1999 to meet the frenzied demand for millennium
argue that market forces can be harnessed in the cause of
conservation. The theory is that development of a U.S. aquaculture
market will take pressure off the endangered Caspian resource
by increasing the supply. Zaslavsky says that there are ongoing
efforts to preserve the Caspian stock and that farming will
help. He says many of the fish in the Caspian are artificially
reproduced. "Aquafarming is the future," he says.
"We can't avoid it." --With reporting by Kathie