Located on 120 acres in the tiny town of Bascom, there are 100 tanks that hold an impressive sturgeon population of approximately 100,000.
The tanks are full of the critically-endangered Beluga, Sevruga, Sterlet and to a lesser extent Russian Osetra sturgeon. Sturgeon AquaFarms is actually the largest Beluga aqua farm in the world and has more Beluga sturgeon than the Caspian Sea.
Sturgeon is currently one of the most threatened groups of animals on the planet. Moreover, the Beluga sturgeon is now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Critically Endangered. Due to this listing, the UN closed exports from the Caspian Sea. In 2005, the United States prohibited imports of Beluga products.
The demand for the black caviar, which is derived from the sturgeon's unfertilized eggs, is considered the finest in the world. Like with most finer things in life, that classification comes with a hefty price tag. In fact, the caviar retails in Europe for $10,000-15,000 per kilogram. Consequently, this desirable and expensive product led to overfishing and to the sturgeon's demise.
While Sturgeon AquaFarms harvests the caviar from their sturgeon (currently as a limited edition), their goal is twofold: preservation and protection of the sturgeon species, along with sustainable caviar farming.
The story of Sturgeon AquaFarms began in 2001, when Mark Zaslavsky, the CEO of Marky's Caviar (founded in 1983), began importing live juvenile sturgeon from Europe with the intent to recreate a top-notch facility of his own in Florida, stocking it with Beluga and Sevruga sturgeon for the world market. "He felt compelled to find a better, more efficient and less damaging way to breed his own sturgeon in the United States, unlike anyone had before," said Christopher Hlubb, president of Markys Group, Inc. and COO of Sturgeon AquaFarms.
In 2005, when the Beluga sturgeon was declared illegal for import into the United States and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the United Nations (UN) declared a ban on its fishing internationally, Sturgeon AquaFarms added preservation and protection to their company's mission. "The aim of Sturgeon AquaFarms is also to 'preserve and protect sturgeon species' through the commercialization of locally produced aquaculture sturgeon thus decreasing pressure on Caspian Sea wild stocks and reducing the need for importation," said Hlubb.
Their goal of producing high quality domestic caviar is successful as the sturgeon are raised and fed in optimal environments. They reside in tanks filled with Floridian Aquifer water, and exist on a diet that is organic feed, and free of hormones, antibiotics and other pollutants. It's similar to what they would eat in the wild, only better. This helps ensure a high nutritional value and the highest quality meat and caviar possible.
As far as preserving and protecting the sturgeon goes, 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 current re-population efforts and increasing the effectiveness and acceptance of aquaculture throughout the commercial community and to consumers. "We have worked with the FDA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the USGS in the past year to aid efforts while building a long-term international plan to assist our partners in the process," explained Hlubb.
Sturgeon AquaFarms was the first to successfully breed Beluga sturgeon in a farmed environment in the United State. Thanks to the success, Sturgeon AquaFarms has gained worldwide recognition. "As a result, scientists from all over the world have attended symposiums at Sturgeon AquaFarms in order to learn to help in the preservation of the species," said Hlubb.