by Mike Vogel
Updated 2 yearss ago
As Tropical Storm Emily drenched DeSoto County in July, a man, whitebearded, tall and erect, arrived in the county seat of Arcadia and made his way into the courthouse, a centuryold Classical Revival building on the town’s courthouse square.
Though he could have been mistaken for an expert witness, David W. Nellis, was not there voluntarily. Nellis, 73, is the retired chief of the Bureau of Wildlife in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the rough equivalent of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A biologist with a doctorate from the University of Georgia, he lives in southwest Florida and is the author of three books on Florida and Caribbean seashore plants, poisonous plants and coastal birds.
More recently, Nellis had taken an interest in Florida alligators. Indeed, says Allen Register, owner of the Gatorama alligator farm and attraction about an hour to the east, Nellis became so hungry for knowledge for a book he was working on that eventually Register had to cut him off. “He pestered the hell out of me,” Register recalls.
Nellis was at the DeSoto courthouse to be arraigned. Two months earlier, Florida wildlife enforcement agents had arrested him and three other men on charges they were part of an “organized criminal conspiracy” that poached alligator eggs. It’s odd stuff, even for a rural Florida county courthouse, but serious. The four have been charged with racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering — charges usually deployed against drug cartels and mobsters — and each carries up to a 30- year prison sentence.
On the endangered species list in Florida until 1987, alligators are now plentiful in part because the state promoted the creation of private alligator farms. Florida has been issuing gator farm licenses since 1977. Today, there are about 90 licensed farms, but only about 17 are actively producing hides. Cypress Creek Farms in Starke, the largest, had 28,000 alligators at last reporting; two others have more than 10,000.
For gator farmers, meat, which fetches about $8.50 a pound wholesale, is a by-product. The money is in the hides, sold to fashion giants like LVMH Moet Hennessy, the French parent of Louis Vuitton. Hide prices vary — $15 a linear foot in 2010, $75 a foot in 2012, down to $59 in 2015 and reportedly down considerably this year. On average, each gator fetches about $395 to the farmer.
“When hide prices are up, everyone wants to be an alligator farmer because it’s get-rich-quick,” Register says.
The industry dynamics that landed Nellis in court originate largely in the bayous of another state. Florida may be celebrated in song as “Gator Country,” but Louisiana — where gator farms are known as ranches — rules the industry. The value of Louisiana’s alligator harvest in 2013 was $35.6 million, four times the $8.9 million value of Florida-farmed hides and meat. Louisiana, says Register, is “kind of the dog, and we’re the tail.”
Louisiana’s industry, though, has a problem — a shortage of eggs to support its scale. It’s not easy to get alligators to nest in captivity, and to restock their enterprises, farms depend on collecting eggs in the wild. Driven by demand from Louisiana, the price of eggs has risen high enough that the regulated systems for collecting them in the wild in Florida are under a lot of pressure.
Florida farmers, who both use eggs and sell them to Louisiana, get eggs two ways.
Years ago, the state gave 30 gator farmers permits to collect eggs on Florida’s public waters each year. The number of permits hasn’t increased. Each year the state determines the number of eggs that those 30 permit-holders can collectively gather from Lake Tohopekaliga, the St. Johns and Kissimmee rivers and a couple dozen more sites, including the most fertile egg ground, Lake Okeechobee. In addition to what it costs the farmers collectively for a helicopter, airboats and workers to gather eggs, they pay the state a fee for each egg.
On average, the 30 permit holders each get about 1,200 eggs per year, generally paying $12.50 to $13 per egg, says Register, who was chosen decades ago by the permit holders as the egg collection coordinator.
The second way to acquire eggs is more complicated. Those with licenses to collect eggs can gather eggs from gator nests on private lands — ranches in southwest Florida, for example — if they get permission from a landowner. They have to usually pay the landowner for each egg they collect, and the state FWC must approve the collection. This process has produced an average of 90,000 eggs a year for the last five years.
FWC approval carries a set of rules as thick as any swamp. The state specifies how many nests can be raided and eggs taken from private lands. Gatherers have to file a report on each nest they find, including its GPS location. The permit also may specify that collectors can open no more than half the nests found, making opening a nest a guessing game as to which will produce eggs and which is a dud. A certified biologist — Nellis is one — must personally witness and document the whole thing.
The process is costly: In addition to the equipment and labor cost of collecting the eggs, the permitted collector pays a biologist, who may charge $350 per day. The biggest cost is the payment to the landowner: With demand for eggs from Louisiana rising, landowners can demand $50 or more an egg, double the price of just a few years ago. At that price, an average gator nest is worth $1,750 to a landowner.
To avoid those costs, some turn to poaching. In recent years, the state noticed that some farms were reporting hatch rates that were “statistically unachievable” — rates higher than 80%, more than double what biological studies would indicate. The FWC became convinced people were poaching wild eggs and laundering them through farms.
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.”
Farm-raised gators get their start in an incubator room where eggs typically are kept at a constant temperature to ensure maximum yield. A temperature of 89 degrees also produces more females, which grow faster.
Gatorama, a rare farm that also is open to the public as an attraction, allows some gators to grow to monstersized maturity to entertain tourists. Most farmed gators, however, go to grow-out houses. They’re kept for two years, growing to between 4½ and 5½ feet, then harvested.
The money is in the hides, which are sold on the fashion market, where they’re used to make handbags, shoes and other items. Hide prices have ranged in recent years from from $15 to $75 a linear foot. On average, gator farmers realize about $395 per gator for its meat and hide.
Meat is a by-product — in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, the wholesale value of Florida’s farmed alligator meat was a fourth the value of the hides.
Value —The average annual value for Florida meat and hides is $8.17 million.
1.3 million — Estimated number of alligators in Florida.
$62.6 million — Proceeds from the entire nation’s alligator farming business in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — about half the value of Florida’s potato crop. The USDA lumps alligator farming in with sea urchins and frogs in its “miscellaneous aquaculture” category.
Florida alligator farmers market gator hides extensively; a marketing group has visited Paris, Italy and Las Vegas to promote Florida hides for fashion. Most recently, it’s partnered with the Savannah College of Art and Design in a competition for students, to groom them in working with the pricey material and to show how off-grade hides — those with scarring or holes from bites — can be used.
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