HOUMA, La. (AP) — Alligator season is underway in Louisiana, and with meat prices high, people within the industry expect a good year.
Alligators bring in an estimated $250 million to the state annually, according to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department.
Hide prices have been down because of an oversaturated market, but meat prices have risen, industry officials say.
Wild gator hides sold at $7.50 a foot last year and brought in $780,900 across Louisiana, state figures show. Farm-raised gators sell by the centimeter and brought in significantly more, at $6.50 a centimeter for a total of $66.29 million.
The meat alone brings in more than $10 million a year in Louisiana, said Jeb Linscombe, alligator program manager for the Wildlife and Fisheries Department.
Last year, 1.1 million pounds of farm-raised alligator meat were sold in Louisiana for a combined $7.8 million, according to the agency’s 2020-21 annual report. Hunters who caught wild gators sold 315,100 pounds of meat for a combined $2.2 million.
For hunters, it’s both profitable and fun.
“I did a 2,000-mile drive for this,” said Larry Casler, 72, of Ontario, Canada. He caught and shot two of the three gators hauled in Sept. 2 in Terrebonne Parish on a trip with Houma hunting guides Nicholas Cocke and Joshua Bridges.
Randy Rochel and his son Randy Rochel Jr. of Gibson got tags to hunt and kill 25 alligators this season, which started Aug. 31 and runs through Oct. 31. The duo caught four gators Sept. 2, and Rochel said he had about four tags left. This is their first year hunting gators, and they expect to make $2,000 in total.
“It’s been good for us,” Rochel Sr. said. “It’s not much, but it gets your expenses back and gives you something new.”
Linscombe predicts that without any storms throwing off the season, 20,000 to 25,000 wild gators will be harvested across the state.
Yvette Pitre is a local alligator processor in Cut Off who buys from both hunters and farms. Tab Pitre, her husband, took over the business, Louisiana Bayou Bites, in 2002 from his father. The Pitres say that since the History Channel show “Swamp People” started in 2010, people’s palates have become more adventurous and demand for alligator meat has risen.
“We were able to push the market up $1.50 to $2, and we passed that straight on to the fishermen because without them we have no business,” said Yvette Pitre, adding that many hunters lost homes or jobs to Hurricane Ida.
The company sells its alligator in small bags either filled with red or white meat. The white meat sells for about $12 to $14 a pound at a store, and the red meat goes for $7 or $8 a pound, Tab Pitre said.
Linscombe said the rise in demand and prices are in line with what he’s seeing statewide.
A typical alligator the Pitres receive is about a 7 feet long, sells for roughly $100 and yields 20-30 pounds of meat. The Pitres operate year-round, but roughly 75% of their business is done during alligator season. She said the season is crazy and people work day and night processing the hauls by hand.
Al Mahler, owner of Big Al’s Seafood in Houma, buys and sells gators for his restaurant and is expecting a good season. He also received tags to harvest 13 alligators on acreage he owns. Mahler said the season was slow as of Sept. 2, but he expected it to get busier quickly because of the Labor Day holiday.
Linscombe said the state’s regulation and management of wild alligators has brought them back from once endangered status.
Louisiana’s wild alligator population has increased from fewer than 100,000 to more than 2 million over the past 50 years, state officials said. In addition, nearly 1 million alligators are on farms in Louisiana.
The tag system incentivizes landowners to protect the alligators, Linscombe said. The number of tags issued each year is based on how well alligators are able to reproduce.
“So because it’s a commercial harvest, essentially, my predecessors created a program that was beneficial financially to the landowners, so what that did was that gave financial incentive to protect the resource, and that’s why they recovered so dramatically,” he said.
This method of regulation has been so successful, Linscombe said, other countries are beginning to imitate it.
“We have a healthier alligator population than we’ve had in 100 years,” he said. “So you have other, say, African countries that have endangered species of crocodiles and rather than try to make it illegal to harvest them, what they try to do is come up with a harvest program so that those indigenous cultures have a value to that crocodile rather than just viewing it as a dangerous animal and killing them all.”