Florida Aqua-farmers Face Extinction
If the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) moves ahead with plans to list the beluga sturgeon as threatened, Florida aqua-farmers could go under.
Only a handful of farmers are currently engaged in raising sturgeon for the commercial market and only one, Gene Evans, raises the highly prized beluga, the eggs of which command extremely high prices.
If the FWS designates the sturgeon threatened, the farmers will not be allowed to raise them for commercial purposes even though countries on the Caspian and Black Seas will still be allowed to export the same product into the United States.
The Florida Sturgeon Production Working Group is trying to convince the government agency that the commercial sturgeon business in the United States will not harm wild sturgeon along the Caspian Sea and to amend the rule "to specifically authorize the culture of captive-bred sturgeon, at least in Florida."
The government apparently contends that hatchery-raised sturgeon are different from wild sturgeon and never the two shall meet. In a similar case in Oregon, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled there is no genetic difference between hatchery-raised Coho salmon and wild salmon, although the Bush administration chose to maintain protection for the wild species under the Endangered Species Act anyway. It is, after all, an election year.
Aquafarmer fighting to save Pierson operation
By JOE CREWS
Last update: 24 July 2004
PIERSON -- A local aquafarmer fighting to save his beluga sturgeon farm got help Friday from state officials and researchers.
The Florida Sturgeon Production Working Group met at Evans Fish Farm to complete its response to a plan adding beluga sturgeon to the list of threatened species.
"We have to have our response in by next Thursday," said Mark Berrigan of the state Department of Agriculture's Division of Aquaculture. He was chairman of the meeting at the fish farm near Pierson.
The rule, governed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would stop American farmers from raising beluga sturgeon for commercial purposes, while still allowing countries on the Caspian and Black seas to ship their beluga products to the United States. The rule is scheduled to go into effect Oct. 21.
A commercial ban would have devastating results for beluga farmers like Pierson's Gene Evans, host of Friday's meeting. Last year, Evans and Mark Zaslavsky of Miami raised beluga and other sturgeon for their eggs and meat. Zaslavsky imported some belugas from overseas to kick off the endeavor.
"We were the first county in the country to have beluga farming," Evans said. "We've got to keep it. This is something we can do here."
Friday, the working group sat down with John Field, a fisheries specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Arlington, Va., and Stephania Bolden, a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service office in St. Petersburg, to outline the members' reasons for opposing the listing.
Only three or four commercial aquafarmers in the state raise sturgeon, Berrigan estimated, with Evans the only one raising the most-prized beluga. More are interested, but they fear that if the beluga sturgeon is deemed threatened, then other types of sturgeon could be added to the list, he said.
Researchers said the listing could stifle sturgeon farming. The Center for Fisheries Enhancement at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota is trying to increase the viability of sturgeon aquaculture, said Kenneth Leber, the center's director.
And the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has a teaching program for aquafarmers in Florida and around the world, said Frank Chapman, a professor of aquatic sciences whose specialty is sturgeon biology.
Berrigan said the group is arguing that the proposed rule shouldn't prohibit American farmers from providing a product for American markets. Additionally, Florida has a regulatory framework that would allow beluga aquaculture in the state without an adverse impact on wild stocks in the Caspian nations, he said.
"We're asking the Fish & Wildlife Service not to adopt the rule as written, but to amend it to specifically authorize the culture of captive-bred beluga sturgeon, at least in Florida," he said.
While the group is skeptical about its chances of amending the rule, Berrigan said its members were encouraged by Field's attendance Friday.
"I think we accomplished a lot by his coming down," Berrigan said. "I think we gave him some information that he wasn't aware of."
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