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Alligator harvesting an area industry

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / October 2, 1998

BAYOU GAUCHE – Louisiana has long been known as a sportsman’s paradise.

Commercial fishermen can make a living off the land in a variety of industries – crabbing, crawfishing, shrimping, fishing and furs.

One of the least recognized industries is that of alligator harvesting. Butevery year, hunters from throughout the state go into the marsh in search of this creature who traces its roots back to the days of the dinosaurs.

Alligators are a member of the crocodile order. Unlike crocodiles,however, alligators have a broad, flat and rounded snout and their lower teeth do not protrude when their mouths are shut. Alligators are alsofound in more temperate areas and normally breed only in the spring.

Two species of alligators exist. The Chinese alligator is found in theYangtze River Basin in China and seldom exceeds 5 feet in length. Itscousin, the American alligator, lives in freshwater swamps, lakes and bayous in the southeastern portion of the United States. It can growanywhere from 6 to 20 feet in length.

Alligator harvesting has been going on for centuries, both for sport and for its skin and meat. Harvesting got to be so prevalent that in 1967 theAmerican alligator was placed on the endangered species list and hunting was prohibited.

Thanks to breeding and protection programs, the numbers began to come back. In 1972, alligator harvesting season was open on an experimentalbasis in Cameron Parish. That year, 59 commercial hunters took 1,350alligators. A year later, Vermilion Parish was added. The coastal areas ofthe state was opened in 1979 and in 1981, alligator season was reopened for the entire state.

The number of commercial hunters in the state has risen from 913 in 1981 to 1,919 this season with a high of 1,995 in 1991. In 1981, 15, 534 tagswere issued and 14,870 alligators were harvested. In 1997 the LouisianaDepartment of Wildlife and Fisheries issued 29, 865 tags with 28, 375 alligators taken. This season, 29, 762 tags were issued by the LDWF.Just getting licensed to harvest alligators is a complicated process. Inorder to get a license, the hunter must either own the land or have permission from the landowner to hunt on the property. After receivingthe application proving land ownership and description of the property, LDWF biologists will then research the property to see how many tags will be issued. The number of tags distributed is based on habitat type andnumber of alligators per acre. Tags are allotted to the landowner and thenissued to hunters in exchange for an amount that usually equals 25 to 40 percent of the value of the alligator.

The cost of a license is $25 per hunter and per helper. A tag fee of $4 isassessed on each alligator skin harvested in the state. The season runs for30 days annually in September, a period set by biologists. Becausealligators have recently been an endangered species, both state and federal officials closely monitor the controlled season.

Approved wild harvest methods include hook and line, bow and barbed arrow and firearms. Alligators may be taken only during the hours betweenofficial sunrise and sunset, and hunters are required to inspect any hooks and lines they are utilizing daily. Hunters are not allowed to cut alligatorsloose from hooks and lines for the purpose of selecting larger animals. Ifan alligator is hooked and the hunter has used up his tags, the alligator must be released in the most humane way possible.

The harvested alligators will be used for a variety of products. The valueof the skins has fluctuated over the years with a high of $57 per 30.5centimeters in 1990. That year the total value of skins was $10,568,869.Last year, the value dropped to $18 per 30.5 centimeters, the lowest ithas been since 1983, and the total value of skins fell to an estimated $3,767,828. LDWF Field Biologist Larry McNeese attributes this decline tothe world market and the increase in the market for crocodile skins.

“It is based on the world economy,” McNeese said. “The majority of theskins are exported. It is based on supply and demand.”While the value of skins has declined, the value of alligator meat has increased since 1980. Before 1979 the sale of meat was not permitted.Louisiana Health Department regulations first allowed meat sales in 1979, and the total value of the meat was $125,000. Last year, anestimated 366,700 kilograms of meat was harvested for a total value of $4,365,000.

“The value of meat is becoming more important as far as the economic picture,” McNeese said.

The LDWF’s Fur and Refuge Division reports that Louisiana’s thriving alligator population continues to support the largest wild harvest in the country. Last season the wild harvest generated over $8 million for theLouisiana economy. Festivals around the state (including the AlligatorFestival in Boutte) are centered around the alligator as are many swamp tours and farms.