Miami businessmen at odds with environmentalists over caviar production
By Claudio Mendon┴a
Local 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 aquaculture business.
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 ways.
"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 Service.
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 Act.
"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.