The state of Louisiana has been banned from using hunting-license fees and export-tax revenue to market the state's alligator industry, a decision that some say will hurt the business but others contend is the end of a waste of money.
The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has been using those mandatory fees to finance the marketing of alligator hides. But because of a lawsuit filed by a hide-processing company in Kenner, the state will be banned from doing that effective July 1.
U.S. District Judge John Parker of Baton Rouge agreed with Pelts & Skins, which sells hides to the high-end fashion industry in Europe and Asia, and ruled the use of the mandatory fees constituted forced commercial speech, which is unconstitutional.
Zachary Casey, Pelts & Skins president, said May 12 that mass marketing would turn alligator hides from a high-end item into a commodity with lower prices.
"They weren't advertising in anyone's best interest," Casey said. "We need to be able to spend our own money marketing our own brand."
The wildlife department has not decided yet whether to appeal the ruling, said Philip Bowman, an assistant agency secretary.
Louisiana law requires that resident alligator hunters pay a $25 annual license fee and that processors pay an export tax for each hide shipped out of the state. That fee was $4 until last year when it was reduced to $2.
The two fees finance personnel, law enforcement, education and the marketing of Louisiana's fur and alligator products at trade shows and fashion houses.
"We were trying to teach people that alligators are no longer endangered in Louisiana, and that we offer a quality product that's a lot better than a lot of other reptile products out there," Bowman said.
About 25% of the state's alligator revenue comes from Pelts & Skins. Court records show the company exports more than 80,000 raw skins a year and pays annual fees of more than $32,000.
Other producers appear split on the mandated advertising.
Michael Ragusa, who has run the Circle M Alligator Farm near Hammond since 1991, says the need for generic advertising has waned.
"We've been spending money for somebody to travel all over the place to promote these things," Ragusa said. "But it's been a waste of money. This decision is good for the industry."
But any reduction in marketing could hurt the business, says Marco Dermody, an alligator skin broker from Clinton.
"The more people know about the quality of the product, the more in demand it will be," Dermody said. "I think this could really hurt us."
Larry Michaud, a spokesman for the state agriculture department, said the ruling would not affect industry trade groups and their marketing efforts for such commodities as catfish, crawfish and strawberries.
Members of those trade groups decide whether to pay voluntary fees to advertise their products. The trade groups decide how to market the products, the form of advertising to use and what advertising agency to use, Michaud said.
The agriculture department has representatives on each board that simply execute the group's various marketing strategies, Michaud said.