Per­haps More Caviar Than the Caspian Sea

A Florida fish farm works to bring back en­dan­gered bel­uga stur­geon

RSWLiving - - Department­s - BY ANN MARIE O’PHE­LAN

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

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