COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s first commercial alligator business may hatch as early as next year.
Commercial alligator operations are not legal in South Carolina. But Wednesday, a state Senate panel approved S. 714, which would allow people to propagate the reptiles and harvest them for meat and hides.
The S.C. Wildlife Federation and Conservation Voters of SC had raised questions about the proposed practice last month, lawmakers acknowledged their concerns, raising the startup costs on alligator-farming and strengthening environmental protections.
Future farms would also have to meet regulatory standards on waste disposal, water quality and other activities that could affect the environment.
“There were questions about alligators farms being sustainable,” said Benton Wislinski, a lobbyist for the state Wildlife Federation.
A key improvement he said, was lawmakers’ decision to increase the bond amount required of alligator farmers from $20,000 to $100,000.
“From a wildlife standpoint, if it’s a failing business model and they go out of business, what happens to all of the alligators?” said Wislinski. “That ensures that they can properly take care of it.”
Bill sponsor Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, introduced the legislation at the request of a constituent in Allendale County.
“Nobody’s opposed to the concept,” said Hutto after the committee meeting. But he said developing the regulations and the terms of the permit would take time.
Among the environmental protections state lawmakers attached to the bill Wednesday were restrictions on where an alligator farm could be located, relative to a residence or another farm.
“I don’t think, even if we pass the bill, you’re going to see an alligator farm in 2014,” said Hutto.
“It’s a process. Maybe by early next year they can have all their regs in place and have the permit designed so somebody can make the application.”
Added the South Carolina lawmaker: “Somebody’s got to be the pioneer.”
Florida had a commercial alligator enterprise in 1891, according to the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service.
In the last 35 years, however, state data shows a rapid rise in farming interest.
In 1978, there were four licensed farms. Their production value for hides only was $19,000. No meat value was documented, according to the Fla. Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Those numbers have soared.
In 2012, Florida had 65 licensed farms. Hides were valued at $7.2 million and meat, prized for its high protein and low fat content, totaled $1.7 million.
The average value of an alligator was $57 in 1978. In 2012, the value had swelled more than tenfold.
Florida’s alligator enterprises opened the door to another one: State regulators list about three-dozen licensed alligator meat processors.