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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Pollen problems, beluga sturgeon rule change to drop caviar prices?

If intermittent red tide isn't enough to tickle your nose and throat of late, we're now also at the height of tree pollen season in Florida.

Several oak trees feature more yellow than green in their canopy from the pollen, which usually begins to show up December and runs through April, with peak time from mid-February to mid-March.

That's right now.

Although a lot of trees are producing pollen right now - pines, orange, punk trees - it's usually the oaks that cause the most discomfort. Grass also produces pollen, mostly in the summer, and weeds offer their contribution to the sneezing in the fall.

But it appears that oaks and pines right now are the worst culprit, with upwards of 3,000 grains per liter of air versus about 300 in the summer, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

The best cure? Over-the-counter antihistamines or decongestants work well for moderate attacks, or stronger drugs for those suffering from asthma or other respiratory problems. Air conditioning also helps, and any rain will dissipate the yellow cloud - for a while, at least.

And remember that this too will pass in a few weeks.

Sturgeon rule change

There promises to be some surging sturgeon discussions in the months ahead in the wake of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special rule that will allow trade in beluga sturgeon.

The change allows "exempt international, foreign and interstate commerce in meat and caviar from threatened beluga sturgeon from permits normally required under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

"We believe this special rule provides great incentives to countries harvesting beluga sturgeon to work with the United States to restore and conserve wild populations, and is also an effective tool to encourage aquaculture facilities to get involved in the recovery of these economically valuable fish," according to a wildlife service spokesman.

Beluga sturgeon are renown for their caviar, which sometimes seems as pricey per pound as diamonds to aficionados.

The "exemptions" listed are "limited to economically valuable beluga caviar and by-products such as cosmetics, and to beluga sturgeon meat harvested either from the wild or from hatcheries in countries with native populations. Currently, eight coastal countries with indigenous beluga populations allow the commercial harvest and export of beluga sturgeon: Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kazakhstan, Romania, the Russian Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, and Turkmenistan. Along with the United States, these countries now will be able to engage in commercial activities that, without the special rule, would have been prohibited or limited."

To bring it closer to home, "the special rule also allows exemptions from threatened species permit requirements on a case-by-case basis for aquaculture facilities in countries not having native populations, such as the United States."

And to bring it even closer to home, Florida's sturgeon fishery and aquaculture program may see some changes thanks to the new rule.

"This ruling will have no impact on the Mote Marine Laboratory Sturgeon Program because we are not growing beluga sturgeon," said Jim Michaels, sturgeon program manager there.

"However, this ruling may have an impact on the Florida sturgeon industry," he said. "There will be a meeting of the Florida Sturgeon Production Working Group soon, probably in April, and I am sure that this topic will be discussed at that time."

Mote has had a sturgeon program under way for several years now.

Beluga sturgeon population has been listed as "threatened" by international law as of 2004. It would appear that the rule would allow greater aquaculture facilities to devote attention to raising beluga sturgeon and therefore increase the caviar availability worldwide - and perhaps bring the prices to a level where more people can enjoy the tiny black fish eggs.

Sturgeon appeared in fossil records about 225 million years ago, and were once a frequent sight off Florida's west coast, with Tampa being a major hangout for the fish. However, the sturgeon population was for the most part fished out in the late 1800s. Of late, though, there have been more and more sightings of sturgeon in the rivers and offshore areas in the Florida Panhandle - sometimes with horrible results for humans.

In 2002, four people were injured when Gulf of Mexico sturgeon leapt into their boats. Since sturgeon can grow to 9 feet in length and weigh up to 200 pounds, sturgeon-human interaction in this manner was not to the human's best interest: There were concussions, broken ribs and sternum, a collapsed lung, cracked teeth and gashes requiring stitches.

And why do they jump? The answers are as varied, and somewhat similar locally, as to why mullet jump out of the water, with the leading explanation being, "because they can."

Seriously, the theories range from avoiding predators - although what's going after a 9-foot-long sturgeon in the Suwannee River is anybody's guess - to an attempt to dislodge parasites or to grab a bite of fresh air since, again, they can breathe air similar to tarpon.

Other jumping theories include cleaning out their gills or to communicate with others. Because the fish are bottom dwellers, they might be leaping to flush out their gills. Or it could be a way of communicating with their buddies.

Sturgeon apparently spend the winter in the Gulf, then move to the rivers and coastal waters in the spring and summer. The Gulf sturgeon population today is estimated to be about 12,000, with most of Florida's fish in the Suwannee River area.

Lobster farming coming to an offshore ranch soon?

Large-scale culturing of Florida spiny lobster is a real possibility, according to researchers at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce.

Scientists are finding that lobster larvae are settling on open-water fish cages off Puerto Rico. They figure that if the larvae can make it ONTO the cages, perhaps they can figure out a way to introduce the larvae INTO the cages and keep the little wigglers there until they're big enough to put on a broiler.

"Spiny lobster is an ideal target for commercial culture due to its high value and limited availability from wild capture, mostly using traps," according to Harbor Branch. "Each year, 3 to 4 million pounds of Florida spiny lobsters valued at about $17 million are harvested and account for 11 percent of the spiny lobsters on the U.S. market. Overfishing of lobster has also led to ecological problems in some areas that might be relieved through successful culture and release to the wild."

The problem with aquaculture and lobsters has apparently been the availability of wild larvae. Scientists haven't figured out a way to grow any significant numbers in a laboratory to be able to produce a "cash crop."

However, a deepwater fish farm off Puerto Rico discovered its big traps were covered with lobster larvae, allowing the possibility of a harvest by biologists. In 2004, scientists found they could collect about 400 larvae a month, enough for the beginning of a study of both deep-water and land-based ranching.

Awww-ful

The following is one of those awful jokes, but perhaps it will bring you a smile.

A wealthy old lady decides to go on a safari in Africa. She takes her faithful pet poodle with her for company.

One day, the poodle starts chasing butterflies and before he knows it he's lost. Wandering about, he notices a leopard heading rapidly in his direction with the obvious intention of having him for lunch.

The poodle thinks, "Boy, I'm in trouble now," then notices some bones on the ground, and immediately settles down to chew on them with his back to the approaching cat. Just as the leopard is about to leap, the poodle exclaims, "Boy, that was one delicious leopard! I wonder if there are any more around here."

Hearing this, the leopard halts his attack in mid-stride as he thinks, "Yikes! That was a close call. The killer poodle almost got me," and he slinks off into the trees.

A monkey watched the whole scene from a nearby tree and figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the leopard. He goes after the big cat, catching up to him to say, " Dude, you've just been conned," and explains what happened.

The leopard is furious, tells the monkey to jump on his back and the two race back to the poodle.

The poodle sees the leopard coming with the monkey on his back and thinks, "Good Lord, what am I going to do now?"

But instead of running, the dog sits down with his back to his attackers, pretending he hasn't seen them yet, and just when they get within earshot the poodle says, "Where's that damn monkey? I sent him off a half hour ago to bring me back another leopard!"

Sandscript factoid

Have you ever noticed that a sturgeon looks remarkably like Capt. Nemo's underwater vessel Nautilus from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?"

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