Sunday, August 17, 2003

Caviar importer hatching dream

Florida outfit aims to reap millions from farm

By Mike Branom
The Associated Press

[IMAGE] Mark Zaslavsky, president of Marky's Caviar, holds up a sturgeon.
(Associated Press photo)
PIERSON, Fla. - Mark Zaslavsky reached into the large water tank and grabbed the gray, torpedo-shaped fish as it rose to the surface.

A 4-foot beluga sturgeon, it flailed in Zaslavsky's arms, turning his effort to show off his vision into a soggy, man-vs.-fish wrestling match.

The fine foods importer - a 50-year-old Ukrainian immigrant with a deep accent and ponytail - is willing to take a wet beating as he pursues his dream to be the first in the United States to farm-raise one of the world's rarest and most expensive delicacies - beluga caviar.

Zaslavsky believes if he succeeds he could help reduce the pressure on the central Asian freshwater fish that produces the treasured eggs - and make money.

"About five years ago when supplies of beluga got scarce, we decided to bring fish (to America) and grow our own fish," said Zaslavsky, president of Miami-based Marky's Caviar. "It's our part to save the wild population in the Caspian Sea."

Twenty-five beluga sturgeon - creatures from prehistoric times that can reach 1,800 pounds - have been imported since the spring to an aquafarm 30 miles west of Daytona Beach, with another 25 on the way. Other species are farmed across the nation, with California's white sturgeon industry a notable success story. But this is the inaugural American try at growing beluga's pearls commercially.

"We are the trailblazers here," said Frank Chapman, a University of Florida assistant professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences providing technical expertise to Zaslavsky. "It's not so much technology that held us back, but bravery - or stupidity, however you want to look at it."

Farming beluga taxes the patience, as the females need up to 30 years to reach egg-laying maturity. Zaslavsky and partner Gene Evans, owner of the aquafarm in western Volusia County, won't know for at least two years if they've succeeded, judging by whether they can artificially fertilize eggs and hatch young.

"I think at that point," Evans said, "you're going to say we're in the sturgeon business."

The first shipment of beluga cost Zaslavsky $4,000, plus years of frustration while working his caviar contacts and cutting through red tape in Russia and the United States.

Until those fish arrived in Miami for shipment to Evans' 2,700-acre farm near Pierson, there were only two belugas in America - and they were in aquariums, Chapman said.

Payoff awaits

It could be as late as 2010 before the farm can deliver caviar.

But there would be a payoff at the end of the wait, as that roe currently retails for upward of $35 per ounce. Fresh sturgeon meat could be ready for sale a few years earlier, and it sells for $14 to $15 per pound wholesale, with the smoked product reaching $22 per pound.

Also swimming in Evans' tanks are two other species of sturgeon: sevruga and osetra. Those fish produce less-coveted caviar.

"With nature and the economy, it's a risky business," said Evans, 63. "Is it impossible? By no means."

The 63-year-old's drawl and ranch-hand looks strike a sharp contrast to Zaslavsky. The two met through Chapman's aquaculture program.

Are they endangered?

One potential obstacle already threatens to cut short the partners' caviar dreams.

Sturgeon stocks in the Caspian are thought to be in such low numbers - down 90 percent over the last 20 years, according to one study - that the U.S. government is considering listing beluga sturgeon as endangered. Such a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would effectively kill sales of beluga caviar in America.

Zaslavsky fears that if beluga is listed as endangered, the industry would be pushed underground. "It would be like a drug," he said.

Wild beluga sturgeon are found mostly in the Caspian, an enormous lake of cold, salty water that borders Russia, three former Soviet republics and Iran. Caviar has been harvested there since the days of Aristotle, but pollution, loss of spawning habitats and overfishing have taken a heavy toll.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to rule on the status of beluga sturgeons by Jan. 31.

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