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The sterlet sturgeon is native to the areas around Russia and usually grow one foot at length.

It's now up to the Louisiana Legislature and the governor to decide whether to allow farmers to raise non-native sturgeon for caviar or if they'll need to rely on getting the eggs of home-grown fish.

Ledet's Seafood has petitioned to raise sterlet sturgeon in Natchitoches Parish. The Eurasian species is not native to Louisiana, and conservationists have argued that they could wreak havoc on the ecosystem should the fish escape into the wild. State officials have bounced back and forth on whether to allow the fish.

More recently, they've proposed a compromise: Let farmers raise sturgeon as long as they stick to the local shovelnose variety.

The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission kept both options alive during a recent meeting. The group was supportive of shovelnose farming, but a minority resisted efforts to introduce sterlets.

Commissioner Chad Courville suggested allowing sterlet farming for five years so interested farmers could get their operations off the ground. Then, they would switch over to the native shovelnoses. However, fisheries staff warned that such a weighty amendment this late in the process could delay the sterlet rule such that it would expire and die.

Commissioner Jerri Smitko also resisted.

"Has anybody said 'I would like to raise shovelnose sturgeon?'" she asked.

From the gallery, Ledet representatives said they would look into shovelnoses but made no promises.

Smitko said that if shovelnoses turn out to not be as commercially viable as stelets, introducing a deadline "puts a giant question mark" over the whole operation.

Courville found an ally in Commissioner Joe McPherson for hiis proposed five-year sunset clause on the farming of sterlets.

The commission had previously voted to allow sterlets, but the Louisiana House Committee shut the measure down, fearing an accidental release into the wild. McPherson said that with so much opposition, it was time to slow down and consider other options like that proposed by Courville.

To appease the House committee, Wildlife and Fisheries staff proposed strengthening the sterlet rules to require an escort for trucks carrying fish to farms. However, going a step further and switching to shovelnose sturgeons seems "to take away all the negatives," McPherson said.

He joined with Courville in calling for a five-year sunset clause on sterlet farming, though the rest of the board voted to let the measure through without the restriction.

"We're disappointed," said Rebecca Triche, executive director of the non-profit Louisiana Wildlife Federation.

The commission is supposed to protect natural resources, not economic interests, she said in an interview after the vote.

The concern is that should sterlets escape, they could interbreed with native Louisiana sturgeon and create unpredictable hybrids that pose an uncertain risk to the food web, explained Wildlife and Fisheries permit manager Rob Bourgeois.

There are provisions to prevent such an escape, such as requirements that facilities be enclosed and placed a foot above the floodplain, but conservationists worry that an extreme event or even a truck crash could release the fish into the wild, where they would be difficult, if not impossible, to contain.

There are also similar provisions for shovelnose permits, should anyone apply for one in the future.

Smitko said that rather than coming down on farmers who want to raise a non-native species, the commission can look at ways to offer incentives for businesses that grow native sturgeons.

The commission's proposed rule allowing the farming of sterlets now goes back before the Legislature for final approval and their action is subject to veto by the governor should he decide to do so.


Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.