California ban threatens Louisiana’s alligator industry
ABBEVILLE, La. (AP) — Stephen Sagrera remembers the first time he saw one. The Vermilion Bay marsh went silent as his father cut the boat motor. In front of them, a craggy, reptilian head glided across the canal with the grace of a creature that’s dodged extinction for 35 million years.
“When I was a kid, if you went out in south Louisiana with a boat, it was a big deal to see an alligator,” Sagrera said.
At this point in the Holocene Epoch — specifically, the early 1970s — alligators were as close to extinction as they had ever been. Their skins had been used to make saddles and boots for Confederate troops, and overfishing in subsequent decades led to nearly 4 million gators being pulled from Louisiana bayous from 1880 to 1960.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries scratched hunting season off the calendar in 1962, and by the time a young Sagrera spotted one, the animal had been on the endangered species list for five years.
Since then, the alligator population has rebounded from mere thousands to nearly 3 million. That’s in part due to the state’s harvesting program, which allows alligator farmers like Sagrera, owner of Vermilion Gator Farm, to collect eggs and grow the animals sustainably by releasing more than would normally survive as hatchlings and investing revenue from hides back into marsh conservation.
“The work we’ve done here in Louisiana is what brought the population back here in the United States,” Sagrera said. “I recall in 1990 on properties with large tracts of land, you could collect 8,000 to 10,000 eggs. Now you can collect 50,000. The number of nests is just doubled and doubled again. And doubled again. It’s an incredible success story.”
It’s one he’s had a hand in writing. But he and others believe it could have a sour ending after California in December approved a law to ban the sale of alligator goods.
California is responsible for 30% of the alligator retail market, and the proposed ban would negatively affect businesses from the bayous to Beverly Hills.
Animal activist groups such as PETA hailed the law as a “huge victory for alligators and crocodiles,” but biologists and those within the alligator industry believe the law could not just harm businesses but Louisiana’s fragile wetlands as well.
Wildlife biologist Randy Moertle has spent his life in the marsh. He tagged hides while working for Wildlife and Fisheries during its first experimental alligator season in 1972 in Cameron Parish. He now manages hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands where alligator eggs are collected.
“We use this money to preserve and keep our marshes together to the best of our ability because we want a good alligator habitat and a healthy marsh,” Moertle said. “Which isn’t just good for alligators. It’s good for birds, fisheries, deer and all that. So California, in one way thinking they’re helping the animals or preserving the animals or something like that, they’re actually doing the reverse.”
The law is temporarily delayed after Louisiana’s Attorney General’s Office and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries filed suit. A federal hearing in April will determine if it is allowed to stand.
Each year, Wildlife and Fisheries surveys the swamps and marshes by plane and informs landowners how many eggs can be collected. Some harvest eggs themselves. Others lease the rights to people like Sagrera.
From June to the end of July, eggs are pulled from earthen mounds and taken to be incubated. Once the alligators hatch and reach 4 feet in length, a state-determined percentage have to be tagged and released into the wild. Currently it’s 10%.
“The hatch rate in captivity is much better than in the wild so they’re actually really helping boost the population,” said Amity Bass, Wildlife and Fisheries biologist director.
Ninety percent of alligator skins at American Tanning & Leather come from Louisiana.
Two-thirds of Louisiana’s alligator habitat is coastal wetlands, and 80% of the coastal wetlands are privately owned. These marshes also happen to be eroding at an average rate of a football field an hour.
In a part of the state where rampant oil exploration and fur trapping have largely gone the way of the dinosaurs, alligator season is one of the top income streams. Maintain the marsh and landowners get to keep the alligators — and the cash.
“I know folks that their alligator egg sales covers their labor costs for guys who fix the levees and manage water-control structures,” Sagrera said. “So a portion of the money really does go back into the habitat.”
‘A HUGE HIT’
The alligator hide industry generates at least $50 million a year, according to Wildlife and Fisheries. The skins are sold to tanneries such as American Tanning & Leather in Georgia, where owner Christy Plott said 90% of her product comes from Louisiana. She tans, dyes, finishes and sells those to her clients, at least 500 of which are in California.
Chester Mox, a smaller boutique in Monterey Park, California, is one of those clients and has already felt the financial strain of a law that hasn’t yet gone into effect.
Chester Mox founder Bellanie Salcedo stitches all of her goods by hand. Log onto the Chester Mox website and you’re greeted by a sapphire blue alligator skin belt. But since the law was approved, Salcedo has turned down orders for two handbags and five briefcases, the latter of which start at $7,000 a piece.
“It’s a huge hit. We’re not a big company but it marks about a 35% dent in our business,” Salcedo said.
But even researchers who don’t profit from the sale of alligators see cause for concern in the California law.
Perran Ross, a retired professor and committee member for the conservationist Crocodile Specialist Group, doesn’t believe California’s law will single-handedly topple the alligator industry if passed. But he does foresee a domino effect of other states and countries following suit, which could force major fashion brands out of the industry and have global consequences for similar crocodilian conservation efforts, most of which are based on Louisiana’s model.
“We’re not just going to stop alligator conservation in Louisiana and Florida. We may impact crocodilian conservation all over the world with dozens of good examples like (them): Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia. This might well undermine one of the best conservation programs in the world,” Ross said. “If you take away the underpinning of revenue, you compromise the effective management tools.
“The claims that this action are good for conservation is just wrong.”
California initially outlawed the sale of alligators in 1970 to aid in the species’ recovery, though exemptions have been continuously passed since. By 1979, the species had a population of 300,000 in Louisiana and was taken off the endangered list in 1981. Since egg farming was allowed in 1986, the population — and alligator sales — continued to expand. The last exemption passed in 2014 but was not renewed in 2019 amid pressure from animal-rights groups.
Crocodilian skins have come under fire in recent years.
In 2015, singer Jane Birkin asked to have her name removed from luxury brand Hermès’ signature crocodile skin Birkin bag. This came after a PETA investigation found alligators and crocodiles at farms in Texas and Zimbabwe “crammed into concrete pits” and “continuing to move their legs” after being executed.
More recently, Chanel and Victoria Beckham have also announced moves away from crocodilian leather.
Asked about the animal-rights concerns, Ross said, “You’re holding animals at an unnatural density and depriving them of a significant amount of natural behavior. I think that’s all true. It’s true for pigs, it’s true for chickens and it’s true for alligators.”
Ross said research into alligator euthanasia has also confirmed three procedures recommended to farmers that immediately destroy the brain, but he acknowledged they do wriggle even after brain function ceases.
If the alligator industry went extinct, alligators as a species would not follow suit. Still, Ross argued the loss of state agency money and land-management incentives would have dire consequences for species beyond alligators and the wetlands they inhabit.
“Alligators are a huge success,” Ross said. “They’ve increased in every state in which they occur. It’s a very successful program with demonstrated benefits of land owners preserving land because there’s alligators on it. It’s just inarguable. I don’t believe it’s a mixed issue.”