A Russian immigrant founded America's only beluga caviar farm by importing the fish right before the US banned it. Now he has a lucrative monopoly.

A Russian immigrant founded America's only beluga caviar farm by importing the fish right before the US banned it. Now he has a lucrative monopoly.
  • We visited the only caviar farm in the United States legally allowed to breed beluga sturgeon.
  • Sturgeon AquaFarms cofounder Mark Zaslavsky, a Russian immigrant, brought live beluga into the country in 2003, just before the US government banned imports of the species in 2005.
  • Beluga sturgeon are native to the Caspian Sea, and are classified as critically endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature.
  • The farm breeds five different types of sturgeon, some of which don't take as long to mature as beluga, which allows the company to harvest their eggs for caviar and take them them to market.
  • Zaslavsky has pledged, as part of his agreement with the US government, to donate fertilized beluga eggs in the hopes that they will eventually strengthen the population of beluga in the wild.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: This is a baby beluga sturgeon, just about 1 year old. If everything goes as planned, in about nine years its eggs will be harvested for caviar, which in today's market can sell for up to $35,000 per kilogram.

We visited one of the largest beluga farms in the world to find out how this expensive delicacy gets from farm to spoon.

Beluga sturgeon are native to the Caspian Sea, but these beluga live over 6,000 miles away, on the Florida Panhandle. This is Sturgeon AquaFarms in Bascom, Florida. It sits on 120 acres and features more than 100 tanks that hold five different species of sturgeon, including sterlet and sevruga. It's one of the biggest sources of beluga in the world and the only one in the United States.

Mark Zaslavsky: Pure beluga in United States, you can get only from here.

Narrator: Mark Zaslavsky is a Russian immigrant who imported beluga into the US right before the government banned all imports of beluga products, in 2005. Due to the overwhelming demand for beluga, the fish is classified as critically endangered. Because Zaslavsky brought his fish over before the ban, his farm is the only US-based company legally allowed to breed beluga.

Zaslavsky: All this beluga that you see here originated from original fish which we brought here in 2003 and 2004.

Narrator: The original beluga imported in 2003 are known as brood stock.

Zaslavsky: Look at this giant.

Graham Flanagan: Oh, my God! It looks like a shark!

Zaslavsky: This fish makes shark look small.

Narrator: At more than 15 years old, they weigh up to 350 pounds and measure more than 9 feet long. And they have one simple job: make babies.

The eggs used for reproduction are removed from the living fish with a process called stripping. After the beluga are born, it takes five years to determine their gender and around 10 years for the fish to produce eggs that are ready to be harvested for caviar.

The tanks are continuously filled with fresh water from an aquifer along with a steady flow of oxygen. The fish are fed up to three times a day. Feeding the fish costs up to $40,000 a month. After patiently waiting for more than a decade,

Zaslavsky was finally preparing to harvest his beluga at the end of 2018. But in October of 2018, Hurricane Michael swept through Bascom, causing extensive damage at the farm and killing some of his beluga stock. According to Zaslavsky, this delayed his potentially lucrative beluga harvest by at least three years.

Zaslavsky: We selected place, 100 years no flood zone and no hurricane zone. So this hurricane was a fluke. Once in 100 years.

Narrator: In the meantime, the farm harvests eggs from its other sturgeon species, like sterlet and sevruga, which take less time than beluga to mature. The sturgeon is removed from the tank and placed on ice. The fish is then cut open and its egg sac is removed. The eggs get separated from the sac by rubbing it over a metal grate, and the eggs are collected below in a bowl. Salt is then added and mixed in with the eggs, and voilÀ: caviar.

The caviar produced at Sturgeon AquaFarms is sold at Zaslavsky's Manhattan-based restaurant and store, Marky's Caviar, where this 2-ounce jar of sevruga goes for $175 and where chef Buddha Lo, an alumnus of Eleven Madison Park, creates a $200 tasting menu that incorporates the caviar into each unique course.

But there's more to this farm than just making caviar. According to Zaslavsky, he aims to use his beluga stock to help repopulate the species in their native habitat. The company has already donated more than 160,000 fertilized eggs to the repopulation effort.

Zaslavsky: Given enough funds and time, I think we can easily repopulate the Caspian sea.