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Florida Fishermen May Prosper With Reintroduction of Sturgeon

GAINESVILLE—Petrossian, Beluga…Panhandle?

Florida could one day be the next best source for caviar. Scientists at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences say sturgeon, those prehistoric fish that once thrived in Florida’s waters and whose eggs are a delicacy, could also provide a school of opportunity for Florida’s beleaguered fishermen and aquaculture industry, hit hard in this winter’s cold snap.

UF/IFAS scientists are studying the sturgeon in hopes of replenishing rivers and establishing a new fish-farming industry in Florida. Frank Chapman, assistant professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences, is researching the growth traits and reproduction capabilities of the lively, black and gray fish. Some of those fish, raised in holding tanks at UF, have been introduced to open ponds and aquaculture farms in the Florida panhandle.

“In Florida, sturgeon are extinct for all practical purposes,” Chapman said. “This research will tell us if we can stimulate production of the sturgeon and if they are a viable source for food and stock enhancement.”

Today’s technology would allow the fish to be farm-raised as an industry for aquaculture and for future release into natural waters, said Wallis Clark, professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences at UF/IFAS. In the past, Russia has been a large producer of caviar from sturgeon, but with the recent breakdown of industry in that country, Florida could help fill a niche in that large market by exporting sturgeon products.

“The possibility of farm-raising sturgeon in open ponds and restocking natural waters creates an opportunity for new jobs and a new export market for Florida,” Clark said. “Europe especially loves the caviar and white meat from the fish.”

The Gulf of Mexico species of sturgeon remains threatened after being heavily exploited in the early and mid-1900s, primarily for its caviar, but also for its boneless meat which is commonly smoked. Chapman noted that current numbers show only 3,000 sturgeon left in Florida, with most of the population in the Suwannee River, a few in the Apalachicola area and only two in Tampa Bay.

“Since sturgeon are indigenous to Florida,” Clark said, “this is one industry that should help the economy and the environment at the same time.”

With caviar currently priced around $300 per pound, both caviar and smoked sturgeon are expensive delicacies in most countries. The eggs account for approximately 15 percent of the body weight of a female sturgeon, and a mature female fish native to Florida weighs an average of 80 to 100 pounds, but can reach upwards of 400 to 500 pounds. Larger species found in Russia and other areas of the world can grow to 12 feet long and weigh as much as 4,000 pounds, Chapman said.

In February, Clark and Chapman helped move 200 10-month-old sturgeons to their new home at a UF/IFAS aquaculture demonstration facility in Blountstown, where researchers assist and train local farmers in the aquaculture industry. Another 200 fish were moved to a neighboring North Florida farm where aquaculture farmer David Shuler will continue to raise the fish in open ponds, allowing the sturgeon to be studied in a more natural environment comparable to the fish-farming industry.

For the next few years, Shuler will continue to monitor the sturgeons’ feeding regimens and reproductive potential, and to record their growth and survival rates in the ponds. When the fish have reached maturity, some will be used as breeding stock for future generations; others will be used for further research to determine the percentage of meat usable for food and to examine the quality and flavor of the meat.

“We are putting the fish in a situation very similar to the commercial industry, and hopefully they will prove to be a viable fish for the future of aquaculture in Florida,” said Shuler. “It is very possible that a sturgeon industry would be much more profitable for aquaculture farmers than other fish farming, like catfish.”