On April 8, 2018, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission granted its approval to move forward with changes to state regulations to allow the import and farming of Eurasian sterlet sturgeon.
Sterlet sturgeon is currently banned in the state due to its non-native status. The sturgeon is highly profitable in the caviar industry, with its eggs fetching prices of nearly $100 per ounce. A Louisiana company, Ledet’s Seafood, petitioned the state to allow them to import the fish so they can open a 15,000-square-foot culture facility in Natchitoches Parish.
While cultivating these fish may prove economically beneficial, critics of the plan, which include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have voiced concerned about the potential environmental impacts if any of the starlet sturgeon were to escape into the wild. Escaped starlet sturgeon, for example, could compete with Louisiana’s four native sturgeon species for food and habitat. Two of these species in particular—the pallid and Gulf sturgeon—are both protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The Commission asserts that the new rules will adequately mitigate the risk of live-fish escape or egg release. Sturgeon would have to be raised in recirculating, indoor pools or ponds located at least 1 foot above the 100-year flood elevation for that area. Water used in sturgeon rearing would have to be filtered and sterilized after use to avoid any unintentional egg releases. The state would require fish farmers to pay a $1 million bond per farm to help the state cover the cost of responding to any fish escapes if such an event occurs. Finally, the regulations require that a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries enforcement officer or other state-approved agent escort any shipments of live sturgeon within the state.
The Commission also voted to modify state regulations to permit the culture of a native species, the shovelnose sturgeon. The culture of a native species raises fewer concerns about environmental harm due to escapes. The culture of shovelnose sturgeon would be subject to similar rules as those for starlet sturgeon, although the required bond would be significantly lower ($50,000). Shovelnose sturgeon, however, may be a less desirable species for the caviar industry as they are not currently widely raised in aquaculture facilities and take longer to mature.
The Commission’s proposed rule will now be sent to the Legislature for final approval, and Legislature’s action is subject to veto by the governor. Information about the proposed rules for starlet and shovelnose sturgeon culture are available on the Commission’s website at http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/action-items.