March 8 - Facing extinction in the wild, the highly-prized beluga sturgeon may be about to make a comeback from a new base in the United States. A Florida company is breeding the fish to produce sought-after beluga caviar for profit, but must first demonstrate that it is helping the fish recover in the wild. Evelyn Gruber reports.
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Caviar - one of the most expensive snacks on Earth. Fetching as much as 17 thousand dollars per kilo, the delicious briny eggs are synonymous with the lifestyles of the wealthy.
Carviar is expensive because sturgeon, the fish that produce premium roe are on the brink of extinction….victims of overfishing and poaching.
But in a small Florida town, thousands of miles from their native swimming grounds in the Caspian Sea, sturgeon species like sevruga, osetra and beluga are thriving.
Back in 2003, Ukrainian Mark Zaslavsky started this aquafarm with the idea to save the endangered fish as well as revamp the caviar industry.
Chris Hlubb runs operations at the aquafarm.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) CHRISTOPHER HLUBB, VP SALES AND OPERATIONS STURGEON AQUAFARM, SAYING:
"I'd say that approximately half of the goal of this facility Sturgeon Aquafarms is to, as its motto, is to preserve and protect sturgeon species. We are the only facility in the U.S. that houses these species of sturgeon and because of this and our interest to expand the species as well as protect and help in reproduction efforts, we have two agreements with what are called the littoral states to countries surrounding the Caspian Sea, who have been part of the trade for many years. Those agreements are based solely in scientific research to help with repopulation efforts."
The other goal of the facility is to sell top shelf caviar. But there's a catch, sale of caviar produced by Beluga sturgeon has been banned in the United Stated since 2005 under the engendered species act. For the company to sell the eggs, they will need to prove that the farm is actively attempting to re-populate the species in the wild.
Another hurdle the Aquafarm faces is Florida's warm climate. It takes 6-7 years for a sturgeon to reach maturity and biologists at the farm need to replicate the cool and dark Caspian under the harsh Florida sun.
If granted permission to sell farmed beluga caviar in the U.S., Zaslavsky, could potentially have a monopoly in the market place. He estimates his domestic beluga could be worth bet $5 to $10 million annually, a business almost as tasty as the product he hopes to produce.
"When you smell caviar, you should not smell anything except fresh salty air and then when you take it in your mouth and start popping them one by one, you have a very very pleasant, buttery taste. Caviar doesn't leave any after-taste. It's always fresh after taste. There's always a desire to take more. Then you have to just flush with a little bit of champagne."
Zaslansky plans to raise a glass of bubbly when endangered fish like these are thriving back in wild.