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Louisiana's Fur Industry
At one time, Louisiana was the leading producer of mink and muskrat fur pelts in North America. Fur prices have dropped in recent years, making the time and effort required for trapping less productive and less lucrative. Many coastal resource users have been forced to seek employment in the oil and gas industry and elsewhere and it is questionable whether they will ever return to trapping. During the 2001-2002 trapping season, fewer than 1,000 trapping licenses were sold statewide.
Louisiana's history of trapping furbearers and alligators has played an important role in the state's culture and economy. New Orleans in the 1720s was a major trading center on the Mississippi River and, as such, was hub for the fur trade. As muskrat trapping flourished in coastal Louisiana during the early 1900s, the fur industry started to grow. In fact, by 1912, trapping was so widespread in Louisiana that the legislature imposed trapping season dates and required trappers to be licensed.
In the late 1940s, the most abundant fur produced in Louisiana was muskrat. However, that changed only a decade later when nutria surpassed muskrat both in numbers trapped and in pelt value.
European demand for nutria kept prices high through the mid-1950s. However, in 1955, supply overcame demand and prices for nutria pelts dropped. The sudden lack of demand resulted in an over-abundance of nutria, and their destructive effect on crops and marshland was quickly felt. In an effort to increase the demand for nutria once again, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries searched for new markets interested in nutria products. By the mid-1960s, the German fur market began importing more than one million pelts of nutria per year.
Nutria harvests peaked in 1976 at 1.8 million pelts worth $15.7 million to trappers. In 1981, the price per pelt reached an average of $8.19. But it was during this time that the international fur trade began to slow and prices dropped precipitously. A number of factors contributed to the fur industry's decline and to the sudden drop in prices during the 1980s:
- The overproduction of European farmed furs caused a glut of supply that affected the downward pricing of all fur.
- Fashion trends shifted away from long-haired, wild-fur garments. Leather fashions became more popular.
- Over 20 percent of all American women owned a fur garment or fur-trimmed item, leading to the conclusion that the market was saturated.
- Animal rights protestors were beginning to influence public attitudes toward fur.
- Consumer spending took a severe downturn because of the 1987 stock market crash, the luxury tax imposed in 1991 on furs, jewelry, luxury automobiles, boats, and aircraft, and the 1992 Gulf War recession.
Market promotion of nutria fur and meat has been somewhat successful through the Louisiana Fur Advisory Council and the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act's "Nutria Harvest and Wetland Demonstration Project," but these efforts provide only a small part of the solution.
The global fur market, which was a major factor in keeping nutria populations and their habitat in balance, has substantially declined. This, in turn, has weakened the incentive for trappers to harvest nutria, and a growing nutria population now has become a serious threat to Louisiana coastal wetlands. The continued increase in nutria will most certainly transform marshlands into open water.