Sturgeon farm stirs concern, excitement


Published: Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 9, 2009 at 10:48 p.m.

A proposed sturgeon farm near Melrose has some residents concerned about the flow of water and others excited about the potential flow of money into the local economy.

Ontario, Canada-based Little Big Sturgeon is proposing a sturgeon farm that would produce the fish's meat and prized caviar. The farm would be located on 10 acres of a 32-acre property between State Road 26 and County Road 219.

Manager Dan Yanke said the company is owned by a Russian-born orthodontist, Eugene Kholov, who wants to expand his Canadian hobby farm into a commercial business. The climate of North Florida is ideal for raising the fish, he said.

"Basically I wanted somewhere where the temperature was going to be fairly constant," he said.

The company applied for a St. Johns River Water Management District permit to withdraw up to 450,000 gallons of groundwater per day. Yanke said the operation reuses the vast majority of the water.

Residents of nearby Keystone Heights have expressed concern the operation would drain already-low lake levels.

"Our lakes are drying up big time," said Dennis Barnhardt, president of the Lake Region Council Association.

Florida is home to the Gulf sturgeon, a threatened species of the large, bony fish known for violent collisions with boaters on the Suwannee River. Yanke said the farm would be legally allowed only to raise foreign species.

California has led the nation in farm-raised sturgeon but the business is starting to expand in Florida, said UF researcher Frank Chapman. At least two other sturgeon farms are being planned in the Gainesville area, he said.

The U.S. imports nearly all its caviar, he said, so domestic sturgeon operations are a way to keep the money in the country.

"I think that finally people are beginning to realize that this is the way to go because other countries have been successful," he said.

Since receiving Little Big Sturgeon's application in November, the water district has met with area residents about their concerns. The district requested more information from the company about issues such as the impact on the amount and quality of groundwater, said district hydrologist Claire Muirhead.

She said the permitting process will likely continue until summer or later before the project comes for a board vote.

The farm has also applied to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for aquaculture certification, which a department spokesman said was still pending.

Yanke said the farm would dispose of wastewater in ponds on the property. The sludge in the ponds would be removed and distributed to farmers for use as fertilizer, he said, while the water would be naturally filtered as it drains into groundwater.

"That water is going to be crystal clear before it enters the aquifer," he said.

The operation would likely start with one building and 16 tanks, he said. It could expand to four buildings with 64 tanks, enough to contain 20,000 fish.

Yanke said the operation could employ up to 10 people at full capacity as well as use University of Florida students studying aquaculture.

"There is going to be a lot of employment opportunities," he said.

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