Big business in alligator egg poaching
In the alligator business, there's no doubt as to which comes first, the alligator or the egg. It's the egg. The problem is, there aren't enough to go around.
The demand for eggs showed up in other ways as well. Register says someone broke into his incubator in 2015 and made off with 1,100 eggs, a loss of $66,000. That same year, about 150 nests were poached near Lake Okeechobee. Assuming 35 eggs per nest, that’s 5,250 eggs, more than enough to make a farm viable. “It’s very frustrating,” says Register, whose group complained to the FWC. “We’ve been telling them for years, ‘Are you guys ever going to do anything?’ ”
By 2015, the state did. In the FWC’s view, poaching steals from the state and private landowners and undermines the incentives and systems that have led alligators from endangered status to plentiful. FWC leased a site near Arcadia, on a rural road of mobile homes and a citrus processing plant, and opened Sunshine Alligator Farm, an undercover operation manned by two live-in FWC agents who acquired and raised alligators there “to infiltrate the criminal element.”
In May, after two years of investigation, the FWC announced “Operation Alligator Thief” had resulted in three cases involving 44 charges against nine people.
The case that ensnared Nellis alleges that a group illegally harvested some 10,000 eggs. The central figure is Robert K. Albritton, 36, descended from a pioneering family that came to southwest Florida more than a century ago. (A woman at Albritton’s home turned down an interview request. Albritton, as have all those charged, has pleaded not guilty.)
Albritton was collecting eggs for a Houma, La., gator ranch, Golden Ranch Farms, led by Arlen B. “Benny” Cenac Jr., a Louisiana businessman who’s had trouble in both civil and criminal court but not over alligator farming. In Florida, a Cenac company, according to court filings, wrote the checks Albritton used to pay for Florida egg collecting. Golden Ranch Farms attorney Andre C. Broussard Jr. Says the ranch had “no involvement” in illegal harvesting, was “shocked” by the allegations and is taking “appropriate disciplinary measures against any Golden Ranch Farms employee who may have been involved.” Broussard says Golden Ranch is cooperating with authorities and hasn’t been accused of a crime. Asked about the Louisiana connection, FWC declined comment, saying it’s part of the ongoing investigation.
The state affidavits that supported the arrests reflect that eggharvesting is hot, muddy work. They also show that it can pay well. Among the four defendants: Robert Thomas Beasley, according to the state, made $17,703 from Golden Ranch Farms over six months in 2016. Carl Wayne Pickle, an irrigation company project manager, made $58,440 moonlighting as an egg-harvester. Pickle, in a brief interview, said that while egg collecting brought income, “more than anything, it was the love of it.” Nellis, according to the state, was paid $10,400 by the Louisiana company for supervising the egg gathering.
The state got paid, too. It put out for bid the rights to gather eggs from Cecil Webb State Wildlife Management Area east of Punta Gorda, and Albritton won at $45.01 per egg plus a $2 per egg state fee. A Cenac company wrote the state a $93,665.81 check for 2,081 eggs Albritton said he collected from Cecil Webb. The FWC, whose undercover agent accompanied Albritton and his collecting crew a number of times, estimates Albritton took another 1,640 eggs without paying. One day, the Albritton crew, with the undercover officer along, opened six nests in a row, finding first no eggs, then 16 eggs, then zero, five, zero and 13. Had they opened every other egg nest, which is the simplest option for following the requirement of “no more than 50% of the nests,” they would have come up with no eggs.
The allegations against Nellis boil down to him failing to personally accompany each Albritton eggcollecting crew and keep accurate records. He’s not the only biologist whose name appears in the affidavit, but he’s the only one charged.
When Register heard of the Nellis arrest, “I thought, ‘That poor guy, he got caught up with these guys.’ I feel like he was legitimate.”
Reached by phone, Nellis politely declined an interview on the advice of his lawyer. A trial date hasn’t been set.
Alligator farmers tend to respond to the arrests with a shrug. “They have not even come close to the problem,” Register says. “I’m glad they did what they did. I’m disappointed they only got who they got.”
Meanwhile, Register says he’s worried about the legal side of egg gathering. The 30 farmers who hold permits from the state to gather eggs from public waters enjoy a huge cost advantage over those who have to pay a private landowner $50 per egg on top of collection costs. The public waters eggs the permit holders receive — divided 30 ways — aren’t enough to run a good-size farm but go a long way.
Gator farmers who came along after the 30 and aren’t part of that group argue that the eggs, a public resource, should be shared among all the gator farmers. It rankles them that some farmers hold multiple permits — one farm has seven — that leave newcomers out.
The permit holders, however, desperately want to hold onto their government- provided cost advantage — what economists call rent-seeking. Register argues that the 30 acquired their permits according to applicable rules and law and invested hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars to build their operations on the expectation the rules would continue. At a meeting in August, the two sides discussed an idea to expand the number of permit holders.
Meanwhile, Gatorama celebrated its 60th anniversary this year. “I just don’t want to lose what I can hand down to my children or my grandchildren,” Register days. “We’ve built our farm based on so many eggs, so many alligators on the farm. To change those rules now would put a lot of people out of business.”