LSU AgCenter, alligator industry join forces for reptile research

By PAULA OUDER

Louisiana Sea Grant College Program

Alligator is showing up on more and more restaurant menus, but the biggest profit realized from these reptiles comes from the hides, which are used in high-end consumer goods such as purses, belts, watch bands and even a $400 pair of flip-flop shoes currently on the market.

Gator hunting has been popularized by reality television programs like the History Channel’s “Swamp People,” but most of the highest quality leather comes from smaller animals raised in captivity.

In Louisiana, alligator farmers bring in nearly $47.5 million annually, with roughly $43.4 million of the value coming from trade in skins.

Finding the most efficient means of raising these prehistoric beasts is the goal of the new Alligator Research Facility located at the LSU AgCenter’s Aquaculture Research Station in Baton Rouge. Construction on the $150,000, about 3,600 square-foot, insulated metal building began earlier in 2012. The final stages of installing and testing equipment and plumbing systems were under way in November.

The facility was paid for by the Louisiana alligator industry, which includes farmers, feed mills and tanneries. Some equipment, supplies and research are supported by the AgCenter.

Since alligators are strictly carnivores, a farmer’s biggest expense is feed, according to Mark Shirley, a Marine Extension agent with Louisiana Sea Grant and the LSU AgCenter. Shirley said the high-protein, animal-based commercial pellets can cost as much as $1,000 per ton — far more than any other livestock feed. Other major expenses include labor and the energy needed to keep the indoor farms warm during winter months.

Since captive breeding is not feasible, farmers must also pay fees to landowners every year for each wild alligator egg harvested from nests on their property.

“The industry needs some practical questions answered,” said Greg Lutz, a professor and specialist with Louisiana Sea Grant and the LSU AgCenter at the Aquaculture Research Station. Lutz said that aside from questions about nutrition, the ARF will be used to study growth rate, skin quality and survival of farmed alligators. “No one has ever built a facility like this before,” Lutz said. “We are moving cautiously at every step to make sure it works and that it is a realistic environment, like what you would find at a farm. This is the only one in the world for the study of the American alligator.”

Twelve to 30 gators will be kept in each of 24 4x8-foot tanks filled from a warm-water well on the property. Lutz said the quality of alligator skins is directly related to water quality, so the water will be changed every other day. He also said it’s important to keep the reptiles calm and well-fed to prevent them from injuring or killing each other. The ARF includes a state-of-the-art automation system and 24-hour monitoring of each tank that records important data, such as temperature, which influences growth. There are also four “infirmary tanks” where sick or injured animals can be isolated.

While the immediate intent is to improve the economic viability of Louisiana alligator operations, Lutz said the potential exists to benefit the numerous threatened or endangered crocodilian species worldwide. Though the population of Louisiana alligators is sustainably managed, participants in the state industry face tough international regulations when exporting their products due to laws designed to protect other species. Research to increase the numbers of threatened and endangered reptiles could ultimately benefit people dealing in the American alligator.

Shirley said alligator farming is worthy of support and is important to the state, not only for the economic benefits derived from the industry itself. “Some large landowners are making more than a million dollars on alligator eggs. It gives coastal landowners a monetary incentive to take care of the wetlands. It’s a pretty significant value that encourages land owners to maintain the quality of that habitat and to keep it as healthy and productive as possible.

“The societal benefits are all the other wildlife that comes out of that land, plus storm protection and aesthetics. The landowner doesn’t get an annual payment because his land provides storm surge protection. He doesn’t get paid for butterflies or mosquito fish. All these benefits are not contributing to the sustainable management and conservation of this habitat, but alligators are. Because we have a valuable resource out there, it’s worth the investment and time and effort to take care of the wetlands.”

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