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

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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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