Gulf Species

Red Snapper

Red snapper are one of the Gulf of Mexico’s signature fish; they are extremely popular among recreational fishermen and a prized offering at restaurants and seafood markets.

Red snapper - A fisherman adds a red snapper to the pile on a dock in Destin, Florida. Photo: Tom McCann / Ocean Conservancy

The Gulf of Mexico is a beautiful and bountiful place where the culture and the economy as well as wildlife depend on the health of the ecosystem. Ocean Conservancy is working to fully restore health and prosperity to the Gulf, which has suffered from decades of environmental degradation and unsustainable fishing practices as well as the largest unintentional marine oil spill in history. Our scientists are monitoring indicator species—animals and plants that serve as a measure of how the environment around them is doing—to help inform ongoing restoration efforts.

Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) are one of the Gulf of Mexico’s signature fish; they are extremely popular among recreational fishermen and a prized offering at restaurants and seafood markets. These beautifully hued creatures, which also live along the Atlantic coast of the Americas, can grow to about 40 inches, weigh up to 50 pounds and live more than 50 years. They begin to reproduce when they are about two years old, spawning from May to October along rocky ledges or coral reefs. Fertilized eggs float on the surface and hatch within a day. Only a month later, the young fish begin to migrate to shallow waters.   

Economically, red snapper are among the most valuable fish in the Gulf. In 2011, commercial fishermen from the five Gulf states landed more than 3.2 million pounds of red snapper, sold dockside for $11.5 million. Sport fishermen love to pursue them as well. In 2011, 3.1 million recreational anglers took more than 22 million fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico targeting red snapper and other species. These fishing trips are a boon to the local economy.

Threats and Solutions

Red snapper have been severely overfished in the Gulf, meaning that more fish have been caught than the remaining population can replace. As with other long-lived species, overfishing heavily impacts reproduction.

Most red snapper caught in the Gulf today are between three and six years old, which means they miss out on decades of reproductive opportunity. Bigger, older red snappers produce many more eggs than young ones.

For almost 20 years, Ocean Conservancy’s Fish Conservation team has worked in pursuit of a sustainable red snapper fishery alongside fishermen and government agencies. Red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico are now starting to recover. If implemented properly, the science-based management plan now in place will allow the population to continue to rebuild, but it will take time. Management agencies hope to restore the population to sustainable levels by 2032.

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster occurred during snapper spawning season. The surface oil from the disaster may have hampered red snapper egg and larva survival, which could limit the success of the rebuilding plan. Challenges from the disaster could affect snapper populations for years to come.

In the northern Gulf of Mexico, scientists and fishermen have found reef fish, including red snapper, with lesions, fin rot and abnormal internal organs stemming from bacterial infections and parasites at higher frequencies than in other areas of the Gulf. Scientists are trying to determine the extent, severity and cause of this problem as they monitor the impacts of the disaster on red snapper and their habitat, and work to restore the Gulf.

Red snapper need our help to remain productive and healthy. Join us in our work to protect them.

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