by Springfield Lewis and Ed Lallo/Louisiana Seafood News
You can call the Louisiana alligator a lot of things. But, an environmentalist responsible for saving the coastal wetlands – really?
The alligator is one of the prime reasons driving the conservation of coastal wetlands, according to Mark Shirley, specialist for Louisiana State University (LSU) Agricultural Center (AgCenter) and field agent for Louisiana Sea Grant.
“One important aspect of the Louisiana alligator program, both farm-raised and wild harvest, is the idea that it is environmentally sustainable,” Shirley said. “It is a renewable, natural resource.”
The alligator’s economic value, in turn, gives much greater value to the wetland habitat, where the reptiles breed and reproduce.
The wetlands act as a storm buffer, bird habitat and are filled with aquatic life. Without the alligator, there would be less incentive to protect these areas.
Gator Income Protects Wetlands
“Coastal wetland owners have to pay land taxes like everyone else,” he explained. “Our wetlands are threatened with coastal erosion caused by storm surges, manmade problems, and of course, there are the hurricanes.”
The income from alligator farming gives landowners good reason to protect their wetlands, and in some cases, try and restore it to prevent further damage
Coastal wetland owners are paid by alligator farmers for the rights to harvest eggs on their property. State law requires the farmer to return 12-percent of all hatched-eggs back into the wild once the baby has grown to four feet in length. This allows the wild population in the wetland areas where eggs were collected to be compensated and insures lasting sustainability.
Survival rate for gator eggs hatched in the wild hovers only around four percent. So, this environmental/business arrangement benefits both gator farmers and landowners.For instance, landowners across Louisiana are concerned with salt-water intrusion. Installing structures that stop it is expensive, such as building or repairing levees. The alligator resource provides money for stewardship for their wetland habitat.
And, if alligators ever become endangered again and wetland landowners lose that source of income, coastal erosion could increase at a lot faster rate, said Shirley.
In the 1950s and 1960s alligator harvesting was haphazard and unregulated. In the mid-60s, the state saw its alligator population decrease. Then, in the late 60s and early 70s, an environmental emphasis began to protect and harvest gators.
Call to Action for Environment and Economy
“The state developed programs from the approach that the alligator was a renewable, sustainable natural resource – setting a defined, wild-alligator harvest season and the development of the farm-raised gator program.”
If alligators ever become endangered again and wetland landowners lose that source of income, coastal erosion could increase at a lot faster rate. Photo: Louisiana Seafood Board/Facebook
“The protection of alligators during the 60s and 70s allowed the population of to build,” Shirley explained. The first, experimental alligator harvest occurred in 1972 in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes. A few years later, it spread statewide – set for the month of September
Shirley has a definite call to action to preserve the fragile and vital coastal wetlands.
“People who want to be green and eco-minded need to purchase more alligator products,” he said. “Wear your alligator shoes, purses, belts and watchstraps. If you can’t afford that, at least eat alligator in a restaurant.
Wearing and eating alligator creates a multiplier effect, benefitting Louisiana’s economy and ecosystem.
“By doing any of that, you are supporting the alligators, the people who grow and harvest them, the coastal landowners, and most important, contributing to conservation of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.”