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Recession Eats Into Gator Market

The global economic recession is taking a bite out of an unlikely industry: the American alligator market.

A drop in world demand for designer gator-skin handbags, watch straps and belts has caused an unprecedented decline in the American alligator industry, said Mark Shirley, coastal resources specialist at the Louisiana State University AgCenter.

Louisiana gator farmers harvest around 80% of the world market of American alligator skins, Shirley said. The pelts just last year were part of a $70 million annual business, used for everything from $4,000 Gucci purses to Patek Philippe watches that fetched $60,000. As demand dropped, so did the gator skins - and farmers face the possibility of going out of business.

The number of gator eggs collected from coastal marshes by Louisiana gator farmers dropped from 530,000 last year to 30,000 this year, according to the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The number of wild alligator skins sold to market also dropped from 35,000 last year to around 7,500 this season.

Florida gator farmers, a smaller percentage of the world market, also saw a 15% reduction in the number of skins they've sold this year.

"This is, by far, the worst market conditions the industry has ever seen," Shirley said.

At the Vermilion Gator Farm, near Lafayette, La., it costs $100 per gator to raise the animal until it reaches the 3 1/2-foot size for harvest, owner Wayne Sagrera said. Last year, he bought more than 100,000 gator eggs from area coastal landowners. This year, he bought none. "We can't invest in eggs if the demand is not there," he said. "They're just not selling."

The drop also affects coastal restoration, said Noel Kinler, a program manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Some coastal landowners sell eggs that are found on their properties to alligator farmers and use the money to rebuild levees and replenish marshes, he said.

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