North Louisiana caviar could be the next boom industry in the Bayou State, according to one seafood company, but conservationists worry non-native fish could escape and disrupt the habitats of homegrown species.
If the new fish is allowed in Louisiana, they may be escorted around under armed guard.
The state is currently deciding whether to allow farmers to raise sterlet sturgeon in Louisiana. Sterlets are a small variety of sturgeon that grow to a little over a foot when mature. They are native to areas around Russia in rivers like those that drain into the Azov, Black and Caspian seas, but one company wants to raise them in Louisiana for meat and roe.
Ledet's Seafood petitioned the state to allow them to import the fish so they can open a 15,000 square-foot facility in Natchitoches Parish. Michael St. Martin, the company's attorney, said they have taken steps to keep the fish in the aquarium and out of the ecosystem. A sturgeon would have to escape its tank, get out of a locked room, make it outside and scale a fence to end up in a river.
"A convict on death row at Angola has a better chance of escaping that facility than a fish has of escaping this facility," he said.
However, conservation organizations are concerned that the fish could be washed into natural waterways during a flood or while en route to the facility. If released, the sterlets could edge out Louisiana fish or interbreed with the natives, throwing the food web off kilter.
"There are too many examples of negative outcomes when introducing a non-native species for (the Louisiana Wildlife Federation) to be assured that the benefits of introducing sterlet sturgeon for commercial aquaculture outweighs the potential costs to Louisiana's natural resources," the non-profit group wrote in a public comment.
The Louisiana chapter of the American Fisheries Society pointed to brook trout and Asian carp as examples of the destructive potential of invasive species.
Wildlife and Fisheries had already planned on some restrictions for anybody who wants to get into the sturgeon business — no sterlet farms east of the Mississippi, a ban on transport of live fish out of state and a requirement that the sturgeon are only raised indoors inside tanks. All facilities must also be built one foot above the 100-year floodplain. If a flood or other disaster threatens to release the fish, facility staff would have to drain their tanks, flood them with chlorine or otherwise kill the sterlets.
Ledet's has promised to take steps beyond the requirements, fisheries authorities said, but the sterlet rules would apply to anyone who wants to raise the non-native species in the future.
The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries commission supported the proposal but were rebuffed when they sent it along to the Louisiana House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment.
"We fear there is a rush to implementation that may not be necessary and may result in ill-advised decisions. ... We, as a committee, agree with the concerns expressed about the accidental release of non-native species into our watershed. There have been too many instances where non-native species have been introduced into a biome and serious damage to the native species has resulted," Chairman Stuart Bishop wrote in a November letter to the fisheries and wildlife commission.
After the house committee sent the matter back down, the commission proposed another restriction that "fish transports within Louisiana must have an escort either from LDWF enforcement or other departmentally-approved escort."
Fisheries officials heard arguments Wednesday from the seafood company and conservation groups on the amendment. Ledet's representatives said they would follow whatever rules are enacted, but St. Martin said that the escort requirement would place stricter rules on the transport of young, three-inch fish than radioactive material and explosives.
Sterlet opponents continued to reject the entire proposal. A fish escort "cannot eliminate the possibility of an accident," said Rebecca Triche, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation.
Seth Blitch of The Nature Conservancy reminded authorities of a recent 18-wheeler wreck that closed Interstate 10 near Whiskey Bay, saying no company intends to lose their product, but that doesn't prevent accidents from happening anyway. And while a spill of chemicals can be somewhat contained, fish move and reproduce, and the sturgeon's small size would make them even harder to catch.
Ledet's asked the commission to consider all the safety measures they're ready to take on, and company official Elizabeth Knecht emphasized in an interview the economic benefit of the new industry.
"It would be a boon for us (in north Louisiana,)" she said. "(Sterlet farming) would be something great for Louisiana."
The house committee has a month to respond to the new proposal with the escort amendment. If they don't object, the Wildlife and Fisheries commission may vote on the item as early as their March 1 meeting. The commission and the state Legislature both have to sign off on the sterlet rule before permitting can begin.