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Florida could soon wake up to caviar dreams, UF researcher says

Stu Hutson 352-392-0400

Frank Chapman, 352-392-9617, ext. 247,

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mention sturgeon to a Floridian these days, and they might flinch. The armor-plated fish have made news this summer by body-checking boaters, but the animals might soon develop a new reputation — as cash cows.

Sturgeon farmers across the Sunshine State say marketable yields of caviar could begin within the next year.

It’s an effort more than six years in the making but could be a multimillion dollar boon in just a few more, according to the man who instigated much of the work, Frank Chapman, an associate professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“This year and next will show you the proof that this will be a big thing here,” Chapman said. “Soon, it’s going to be a big thing everywhere.”

Historically, caviar has been harvested from sturgeon found in the wild. However, overfishing for the pricy delicacy drove populations to dangerously low levels worldwide late last century.

While some populations have rebounded, harvesting wild caviar is still outlawed or severely restricted in most areas.

“So now, we say ‘why don’t we just raise them on farms?’ And that’s what we have done,” Chapman said.

The idea has its roots in California, where Serge Doroshov, a professor at the University of California, Davis, began raising white sturgeon in the 1980s.

The idea has since spawned a profitable business, but one that will perpetually be limited because California law restricts species raised for commercial use to those native to that state.

“We can grow many varieties here, especially those that people want to eat,” said Ricardo Armelin, the operator of Rokaviar Sturgeon Farm near Homestead. His facility is setting up methods to process and package its first yield of highly desirable Siberian sturgeon caviar, expected near year’s end.

Rokaviar, like several other farms, began much of its stock with fish supplied by Chapman. Collaborating with these farms, Chapman also developed economical feeding suggestions that help the fish mature in as little as six years — nearly four years faster than their wild counterparts.

Jim Michaels, manager for Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory’s Sturgeon Aquaculture Project, said his test facility has already produced two small batches of caviar.

“Our hope is — and we’re well on our way — is to work over the next several years to hit 2.5 tons a year,” he said.

The nature of caviar production makes upcoming yields difficult to predict. However, Chapman estimates that caviar, if well accepted by investors, could become a $100 million statewide industry in just over 10 years, which would likely make it Florida’s largest aquaculture commodity.

However, the Sunshine State won’t be the only major caviar producer in the United States — at least not for long. Chapman is helping develop programs at the University of Hawaii and the University of Georgia.

The growing popularity, he said, is a sign that people are starting to get the right idea about a misunderstood fish.

Gulf sturgeon swam into the spotlight this summer after several incidents where the leaping fish — which can grow to 8 feet and have hard plates along their backs — collided with and injured boaters.

“People hear all about these crazy fish, and they say, ‘why would you want to raise those things?’” Chapman said. “And I tell them, they are beautiful animals that give us beautiful food. Besides, they’re very nice and docile. Mine swim up and let me pet them.”

For more information:

Mote Marine Laboratory Sturgeon Aquaculture Project (Sarasota), Jim Michaels, Rokaviar Sturgeon Farm (Homestead), Ricardo Armelin, 786-295-3292 Evans Farms (Pierson), Gene Evans, 386-775-3051