What’s a black snapper?
Hmmm. That’s a good question.
Not a single fish identification book shows a listing for black snapper. There are 14 snappers in the Gulf of Mexico — red ones, gray ones, vermilion ones, even a blackfin one — but no black ones.
Well, black snapper is an old-timey name for what is properly known as a gray snapper, what most Louisiana folks call a mangrove or mango snapper.
Now, if you really want to get your feet tangled, it is important to know that a black snapper is never black. Not even remotely black or anything resembling black.
And to makes things worse, a gray snapper is seldom gray once it grows over about 14 inches long — it’s brick red.
Now you know why scientists use scientific names, which for this fish is Lutjanus griseus. Most non-scientists can’t pronounce the name, but a Lutjanus griseus is always a Lutjanus griseus, no matter what the color.
The gray snapper, which in bowing to local tradition, we will call the mangrove snapper from here on out, is neck-in-neck in popularity with the red snapper among fishermen.
Red snappers grow larger (the world record is 50 pounds, 4 ounces) than mangrove snappers (the world record is 17 pounds even), and are easier to fool with a baited hook.
But mangrove snappers have liberal bag limits compared to red snappers and a year-round season — no closures.
It might be coincidental that every mangrove snapper in Louisiana’s top 10 has been caught since 1997, or it could be that the species got a lot more attention and fishermen became better at catching them as red snapper regulations tightened up.
Mangrove snappers are incredibly common off the Louisiana coast and seem to show a special affinity for the sea bottom-to-surface structure of oil and gas platforms.
Although they are considered “bottomfish,” they seem to use all depths of water within the influence of the platform, and are often found so near to the surface that fishermen will toss pieces of fish chum near them to lure them out from the platform for sight-casting.
Fishermen catch mangrove snappers throughout daylight hours. But when they are on their own, they are known to feed most heavily in late afternoon or at night. Like their red snapper cousins, they will leave their reef habitats to go out to forage over open sea bottoms.
This is little known to most fishermen, who assume that, as reef fish, both species haunt reefs — man-made or natural — for the food that they get there.
They will, indeed, feed opportunistically while on or near their reef, but most active foraging is done away from it.
Most studies show that mangrove snappers eat mostly fish, followed by crabs and then shrimp. Other studies, however, show crabs as being as important as fish in their diet.
They seem to be more discriminating or finicky in their feeding than red snappers, who will greedily chomp down on any hunk of fish stuck on a hook.
Consistently successful mangrove snapper fishermen pay a great deal of attention to hiding their hooks in the bait and use lighter lines (or even fluorocarbon leaders) than they would for red snapper.
So far, mangrove snappers have proven to be quite successful at replacing their losses to fishing. Recreational landings have increased dramatically in the Gulf of Mexico, growing more than 72 times during a recent 11-year period.
That’s phenomenal. Think about it: If landings had doubled, they would have increased two times; if they had tripled, growth would have been three times.
This was 72 times.
During this time commercial landings remained roughly the same.
Mangrove snappers are known to form large spawning groups called aggregations that can hold hundreds of thousands of fish. Spawning takes place at dusk from May to September.
Some research indicates spawning peaks on full moons. Other research shows no correlation between moon phases and spawning activity. Both sexes will spawn multiple times during a season.
Mangrove snapper eggs and larvae spend 25 to 33 days floating as plankton at the mercy of tides and currents. They are often swept many miles from where they were spawned before they grow large enough to swim down on their own.
The fortunate ones are swept into estuaries, which form ideal nursery grounds for their early growth.
Mangrove snappers grow fairly rapidly during the first 6 to 7 years of their lives, reaching 11 inches by age 2, about the time they begin to move offshore. At 2 to 3 years old, the fish also become sexually mature.
By 10 years old, the fish average 23 inches in length, although some are still as small as 12 inches and others as large as 26 inches.
After that age, growth slows down considerably. Twenty-year-old fish average less than 27 inches long.
Mangrove snappers are known to live to at least 28 years old, a respectable age for a fish but not as long as the 50-plus years red snappers are known to live.