Florida alligator meat, skin values vary as farm-raised market grows for fashion houses
Drops of blood dribbled onto the white boat. The rest gushed into Blue Cypress Lake. With the final twitch of a claw and puff of the jowls, the 11-foot-10 alligator was dead.
Thad Isenhour reached down from his wheelchair and fastened a plastic yellow tag to Big Poppa’s tail.
“Another dinosaur bites the dust,” said S&K Fisheries owner Rob Ward, who guided Isenhour on the October hunt. “That gator right there, most people hunt their entire life and never even see one that big.”
During Florida's annual alligator hunting season, thousands of people spent their nights stealthily floating atop rivers, lakes and marshes, willing glowing eyes to break through the darkness.
They hailed from nearly every zip code in Florida and as far away as Alaska — all winners in the lottery for a permit that allows each hunter to take two gators. They were armed with snatch hooks, bang sticks — and their wallets.
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Half a century ago, the American alligator was on the federal endangered species list. Now Florida has an estimated 1.3 million gators.
Just as the reptiles scuttled from the brink of extinction, gator businesses are striving for a comeback. Alligator harvesting pumps millions into Florida’s economy each year, but a far cry from its pre-recession contributions.
The 11-week hunt, from Aug. 15 to Nov. 1, generates nearly $2 million annually, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Tammy Sapp.
FWC had issued roughly 7,500 permits to 7,000 hunters nationwide as of this season's first day. The base permit fee for out-of-state hunters is $1,022, while Florida residents pay $22 to $272, depending on whether they already have an alligator trapping license.
The fee “supports the research, management and law enforcement activities that contribute to the conservation" of the gator population, Sapp said in an email.
“They put a lot of money into the system,” said Perran Ross, associate scientist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Just how much money largely depends on how gators are processed after the hunt.
Skin in the game
A gator’s entire life — and death — has long been dictated by its skin.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service attributes gators' mid-century decline to poachers after their skins. Though FWS now recognizes the reptile as a fully recovered species, its scaly sheath remains prized.
“The most luxurious leather in the world is American alligator,” said Jim Devaney, owner of Black Diamond Tannery in Lecanto, southwest of Ocala.
European brands like Paris-based LVMH — the name behind such mega fashion houses as Louis Vuitton — “totally dominate” the trade, he said. Independent skin processors have had it tough since the 2008 recession and are further suffering from the controversial optics surrounding luxury retailers.
The colossal gator Isenhour caught Oct. 23 had bite marks on its back.
“Somebody kicked his butt," Ward said. "There’s a bigger gator in here.”
Such imperfections are why fashion conglomerates tend to sell purses, belts and boots made from farm-raised alligator skins, not those of wild reptiles, Devaney explained.
“The price of alligator skin on the international market is quite variable,” said Ross, a retired professor of wildlife ecology. “It’s like coffee and cocoa. Many of those natural products go through these price fluctuations.”
When the recession hit, the price plunged $36.55 in one year, from $44 in 2008 to $7.45 in 2009 — its lowest value in four decades. Prices climbed until 2013, only to steadily decline, never coming close to their former worth.
The total value of wild skins dropped about $6.5 million between 2008 and 2009.
Farm to fashion
Joseph "Mickey" Fagan has run the private Fagan Alligator Farm in Dade City for about five years, and been a trapper for the state's nuisance control program for nearly 30.
“I’ve sold skins for many, many years,” Fagan said. “It’s like anything else; you got up and you got down.”
In the last decade, the Florida economy has favored farm-raised skins. In 2016, prices skyrocketed to $75 per linear foot, while wild skins fell to $17.
Farms dedicated to breeding gators are subject to strict regulations, governing everything from egg inventory to the reptiles’ “secure and humane confinement.”
Farm-rearing gators for their skin alone is “inhumane,” Devaney said. “It’s terrible.”
On that point, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals agrees. Senior Director Stephanie Bell described life on a gator farm as “lengthy imprisonment and deprivation in crowded, dark sheds and fetid water.”
Chanel since has banned exotic skins, a trend PETA hopes other brands will follow, and a California bill aims to make it a misdemeanor to import or sell any part of an alligator or crocodile’s body.
“Animal welfare really matters,” Devaney said. “The world has become more sensitive to it, thank God.”
Though none of the graphic footage was filmed in Florida, such exposés brand all gator processors as proponents of animal cruelty, Devaney said.
But Fagan isn’t fazed by the criticism of his industry.
“It isn’t just about (gator) farming,” he said. “It’s about cattle ranches, hog farmers. You're gonna have some tree-huggers anywhere you go.”
Fagan and Devaney agree on one thing: Fashion houses’ command of the market makes business increasingly difficult — especially now that mega-retailers are buying gator farms on their turf.
“They don’t need to compete for skins anymore,” Fagan said of LVMH's acquisition of Cypress Creek Farms in Starke, northeast of Gainesville. “They’ve got their own.”
The total value of Florida farm-raised alligator skins hit a post-recession high of $12.9 million in 2016, while wild ones were valued at $2.3 million. The market for wild skins is “on its butt,” Devaney lamented.
“I cannot tell you they’re as pure as the farm-raised skin," he said. “But the economics for the actual producer are better on the wild skin — and substantially.”
Alligator meat processed in Florida doesn’t bolster the economy as much as skins. In this corner of the market, however, wild gator steals the show.
Florida has produced more wild than farm-raised alligator meat every year since 1994, peaking at just under 514,000 pounds in 2006. The total value of wild meat has surpassed that of farm-raised meat since 2003, raking in a high of $3.7 million in 2013.
In Ross’ view, Florida’s network of independent alligator skin and meat processors are battling the industry’s image more than its volatile valuations.
“There are many people who are just horrified at the idea of killing animals — at all,” he said. “They don’t care about sustainable use and they don’t care about ecological benefits.”
Ross recognized the concept of killing gators to keep their population thriving is counterintuitive. He likened it to lawn mowing. Left unchecked, grass overgrows, but bulldozing isn't the answer. Controlled mowing yields a healthy green.
There’s human as well as animal welfare to consider.
“To some degree in the U.S., but overwhelmingly in other places,” Ross said, “the people who get the benefit from using crocodiles and alligators and many other wildlife resources are the poor people.
“If you shut down those markets and those programs of sustainable use, you cut off their livelihoods.”
Ross said he has no doubt ecological preservation and economic prosperity are linked.
Hunters pay a federal tax on sporting equipment that funnels back to states to support conservation. The U.S. Department of the Interior last year awarded Florida $26.6 million in funds generated in part by that tax. And hiring professional guides, like Rob Ward of Fort Pierce, generates additional local revenue.
That cycle gives Devaney hope that processing businesses like his will endure.
“It’s a heritage. It’s more than that — it’s cultural,” Devaney said. “And the culture has been turned upside down.”
Lindsey Leake is TCPalm's explanatory reporter. She holds an M.A. in Journalism and Digital Storytelling from American University and earned her B.A. at Princeton. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.