Farmers Go Fish

Kevan Main’s eyes flicker when she talks about the future.

That’s because her job is to help satisfy our growing hunger for marine cuisine.
Commercial fishing operations across the planet have exploited and in some cases nearly erased certain species. Which is where Main’s flicker comes into play. She and others at Mote Marine Laboratory’s high-and-dry Center for Aquaculture Research & Development east of Sarasota are waist-deep into a $2- or $3-million-a-year demonstration project to show would-be farmers and the government that sturgeon and some other undersea creatures can be raised profitably on inland fish farms.

Taking things a step further, the project is developing a reasonably inexpensive water recycling system that cleans and recirculates water, eliminating discharge. It’s labor intensive, and it needs high-tech water treatment systems for good water quality.’

The organization began using Siberian sturgeon. “They live better in a recycled system,” says Main, who came to Mote three years ago after serving as deputy director of aquaculture at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. “We imported eggs this year from Eastern Europe and Russia.” The project will have some breeding-age stock from the earlier fish in two years. “We’re looking for fish with optimum caviar production,” Main says. “The major markets for caviar are Europe and the U.S.”

The price is expected to range from $600 to $900 a pound, not quite as high as Beluga caviar. One female should yield about 9 percent of her body weight. Hence, a 15-pound fish would produce nearly 1 1/2 pounds. Because the fish has to be killed for her eggs, that’s a one- time harvest.

“With Beluga, it takes 10 to 12 years before you have caviar. We’re not sure of the timing yet in captivity.” One thing is known: “Demand in the U.S. is so great that we can’t see a point where we have too much supply.”

Fillets are another market. “The goal is to get rid of the male fish [except breeders] as soon as you can,” Main says. “But you can’t [tell gender] until they’re 3 years old.” Mote estimates the meat will sell wholesale for $5 a pound for a whole fish and up to double that for fillets. “You can’t penetrate the market until they’re at least 15 pounds,” Main says.

In May 2002, Mote moved its sturgeon operations from downtown Sarasota to 200 acres east of the city. Eventually, all of the organization’s saltwater operations will be here, including farm- raised snook and red snapper for stock enhancement, and pompano for food production. But for now work is limited to about 40,000 sturgeon, ranging from hatchlings to adults. Once the eggs hatch, they’re kept in a larval rearing room for 30 to 60 days, or until they’re 4 to 6 inches long. Next, the fish move to the nursery phase, where they stay until they’re 9 to 12 months old, or about 12 inches. The grow-out areas are the final step in the rearing process. Here, the sturgeon live in tanks until they’re caviar size: about 20 pounds or 4 1/2 to 5 feet and 4 to 7 years old.

Once Mote’s scientists finish their work and learn what can be done in captivity, there may not be too many surprises. “Basically,” Main says, “sturgeon hasn’t changed in 200 million years.”


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