Perhaps More Caviar Than the Caspian Sea
A Florida fish farm works to bring back endangered beluga sturgeon
Some describe the taste as “buttery.” Others claim it’s “nutty.” Still others say it’s “slightly salty with a hint of the sea.” And while the taste of caviar can be described in many ways, the price can’t be argued: It’s expensive. The delicacy currently retails in Europe for up to $ 10,000 to $ 15,000 per kilogram.
Despite that high cost, caviar lovers can’t get enough. Which has led to some unfortunate drawbacks, including overfishing and a ban on imports of caviarproducing beluga sturgeon into the United States dating back to 2005. But a Florida aquaculture farm that was first formed to bring prized sturgeon to the world market is now at the forefront of repopulation efforts for the fish.
Back in the 1800s and until the recent bans, sturgeon from the Caspian Sea accounted for 90 percent of the world’s caviar, mostly produced by the beluga, Russian and stellate species. Because caviar is an expensive commodity, overfishing of beluga sturgeon took place to such a degree that The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( CITES) and the United Nations ( UN) declared an international ban on its fishing. In 2005, beluga was declared illegal for import into the U. S. It has since been classified as “critically endangered,” according to the International
Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Other sturgeon, including sterlet, are currently listed as vulnerable.
Overfishing was especially problematic in the southern parts of the Caspian Sea, where the water is deeper and these large sea creatures— up to 18- feetlong and 600 pounds— reside. Besides overfishing, pollution caused by oil and gas exploitation are also considered serious threats to sturgeon and other marine species in the Caspian.
These days, however, a large population of beluga sturgeon resides in 100 tanks situated on 120 acres in north Florida. Sturgeon AquaFarms, located in Bascom, was the first company to successfully breed beluga sturgeon in a farmed environment in the U. S. for the purpose of harvest and repopulation efforts. The operation’s sturgeon population, composed of 100,000 fish, includes beluga, sevruga, sterlet and a smaller amount of Russian osetra.
The sturgeon swim in tanks that are not subject to pollutants or overfishing. Instead, they enjoy the freshness of Floridian aquifer water, the same water used as drinking water for Florida residents. The fish are also hand- fed a nutritionally balanced diet similar to what they would eat in the wild, a diet free of antibiotics, chemicals and hormones.
Robinson Zapata, chief biologist at Sturgeon AquaFarms, is responsible for the livelihood of the sturgeon. He and his team monitor the fish 24 hours a day. Their size and fitness is measured frequently, and the water temperature and oxygen saturation levels are taken throughout the day. “Any fish that are deemed ill are moved to our in- house infirmary, where they are observed apart from the remaining healthy fish until they are allowed to return or are removed permanently due to extenuating illnesses,” says Zapata.
The caviar currently harvested from Sturgeon AquaFarms is of the highest quality; however, since the company is still in a growth stage, no significant amounts of caviar or sturgeon meat are being sold yet. Sturgeon can live for
up to 100 years and do not reproduce annually, so the maturation process is slow- paced. Once the sturgeon reach maturity, Sturgeon AquaFarms will process the caviar and meat for sale in the U. S. and European markets. This is expected later in 2014.
The company was cofounded in 2001 by Mark Zaslavsky and Mark Gelman, two immigrants from the Ukraine who also cofounded Marky’s, a specialty food retailer based in Miami. Sturgeon AquaFarms began as a quest to produce caviar and meat by importing live juvenile sturgeon from Europe and then raising and harvesting them in a top- notch facility in Florida. Things changed once the 2005 fishing ban on beluga sturgeon was declared.
The mission of Sturgeon AquaFarms then expanded to include the “preservation and protection of sturgeon species” through the commercialization of locally produced aquaculture sturgeon, thus decreasing pressure on Caspian Sea wild stocks and reducing the need for importation.
“We are continually testing and gathering data in order to determine the appropriate and best reintroduction efforts for the sturgeon species to survive in the Caspian Sea,” said Christopher Hlubb, president of Marky’s Group, Inc., and COO of Sturgeon AquaFarms. He explains that Sturgeon AquaFarms possesses agreements with Russia and Azerbaijan to share resources, methods, funding and expertise with the focus of reducing pressure on current wild stocks, aiding repopulation efforts and increasing the effectiveness and acceptance of aquaculture throughout the commercial community and to consumers.
“We have also worked with the Food and Drug Administration, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U. S. Geological Survey in the past year to aid efforts while building a long- term international plan to assist our partners in the process,” says Hlubb, who adds that scientists from all over the world have attended symposiums at Sturgeon AquaFarms to learn how to help in the preservation of the species.
Today, Sturgeon AquaFarms is known worldwide as a live, biological site. In years to come, it could also be known as a world- class caviar and meat farm— for those with caviar tastes.
The 100,000 sturgeon in tanks at Sturgeon AquaFarms are not subject to pollutants and other threats found in the wild.
A sturgeon fingerling at Sturgeon AquaFarms