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U.S. Alligator Meat, Skin Prices Rise After Hurricanes, Drought

Craig Guillot
for National Geographic News
August 25, 2006
 
Last year Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and a subsequent drought ravaged
the U.S. Gulf Coast, raising fears about damage to the region's
economies, from oil refining to fishing to rice farming.

(Read "Hurricane Katrina's Ecological Legacy: Lost Swamps, Crops, Islands" [August 2006].)

One of the more unusual commercial ventures feeling the effects of the disaster is Louisiana's alligator-farming industry.

The gator harvest is down by almost 50 percent, farmers say, and prices for hides, meat, and other products are on the rise.

John Price of Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery in Covington says that in the past his company has sold hides for as low as nine U.S. dollars a foot (31 centimeters)—he is now selling for $50 a foot.

Alligator hides are sold to companies such as Gucci and Rolex to make shoes, belts, wallets, handbags, boots, and watchbands.

"When we had Katrina, I thought—at least initially—that there was an unjustified concern for the number of alligators that would be available," Price said.

"Sure enough, we're not finding the eggs in the marsh in the numbers we used to. The value of hides has gone up astronomically."

From Harvest to Handbag

Most alligator farmers cultivate their stocks from eggs found in the wild.

But during last year's hurricanes, powerful storm surges—abnormal rises in sea level—pushed salt water into the inland marshes where gators lay their eggs.

A subsequent drought spanning about six months means that rains didn't flush salt water out. The higher salinity has weakened the marshes and the animals that call them home.

Noel Kinler is the manager of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' (DWF) Alligator Management Program.

The program is a controlled harvest that is designed to provide the market with hides and meat while increasing wild alligator populations (related news: "Controlled Alligator Harvest an Effective Conservation Tool, Louisiana Says" [October 2001]).

When the program was started in 1972 there were fewer than a hundred thousand alligators in Louisiana. Now the population is estimated to be around 1.5 million.

Participating farmers are required to return 14 percent of their gators that are 4 feet (1.2 meters) or longer back to the wild.

The wild harvest—which begins on September 6 this year—is generally capped at around 35,000 animals.

Kinler says that egg collections are down significantly this year. And although the wild population is still considered healthy and abundant, fewer alligator licenses were issued to hunters.

He estimates that farmers will collect about 275,000 eggs this season contrasted with 500,000 in 2005 and 380,000 in an average year.

"We anticipate our overall farm production next year to be lower, because of that reduction in the egg harvest. That realization will hit the market this spring and next summer," when the 2006 alligators will be big enough to be harvested, Kinler said.

Stressed Gators

Alligators typically thrive in shallow freshwater rivers and brackish—slightly salty—marshes that are thick with vegetation (download wallpaper of a gator walking through a U.S. river).

The gators become stressed, Kinler says, when the water is saltier than normal. In addition, the current low water levels are making it harder for the gators to feed regularly and maintain their body weights.

The hurricanes' storm surges also flipped some of the marshes inside out, so to speak. Ponds have been filled in with vegetation, and some areas of marsh have become open water.

"The geographic landscape was changed quite significantly in some areas," Kinler said. "There weren't many major die-offs, but I do think in some areas habitat quality is diminished from prestorm conditions."

He adds that many alligators don't go through their normal reproductive efforts when habitat conditions are disturbed.

"They may [develop] eggs internally, but if habitat conditions aren't right, they reabsorb those undeveloped eggs," Kinler said. "We've seen a significant decrease in nest production in southwestern Louisiana."

Dane Ledet, Jr., a farmer from Houma, says 2006 has been one of the worst egg-harvest years in his 20 years in the industry.

He and his family usually collect and hatch up to 60,000 eggs per season, but they collected 60 percent fewer eggs this year.

"Even the hatchlings look bad. We've got some dead ones, and we're finding things that just aren't normal," Ledet said.

"Pretty much all the farmers are complaining about the same things."

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