Species spotlight: Red snapper

The majority of red snapper harvested from the Gulf of Mexico are between 2 and 7 years old.

This species is coveted by recreational anglers.

Red snapper, Lutjanus campechanus, are large snappers that are important to recreational and commercial fisheries. These fish are found from North Carolina down the east coast, throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and to the Yucatan Peninsula.

These fish are most often found near reef habitats, livebottom habitats, platforms, shipwrecks and artificial reefs. They live in three distinct habitats in their lifetimes. As juveniles, they live in mud/sand bottom areas relatively close to shore. Around 3 years old, they move to structure. At about the age of 10, they move off of structure and into very isolated, deep waters.

While many offshore species migrate long distances as seasons change, red snapper travel very little, other than for changing habitats as they age. Red snappers that are tagged as part of research studies are often caught within a mile or two of where they were tagged.

Fisheries biologists note that red snapper are very unlike most other fish in an interesting way. They can estimate the age of most species by the size of the fish. This is completely unreliable when it comes to red snapper. A 5-year-old red snapper can be as little as 13 inches long or up to 32 inches in length. 

Female red snappers reach sexual maturity between 2 and 6 years old. Males usually mature at younger ages. Their spawning season runs from May through September. During most years, May through July sees the majority of spawning, but that deviates in years with severe weather during those months. 

Controversial management

During the spawn, females release a batch of eggs every five or six days. These releases may be as few as 1,000 or as many as 2.5 million eggs, depending on the fish’s size. Throughout one spawning season, mature larger females can drop up to 75 million eggs.

Snappers up to 58 years old have been recorded, but most don’t reach the age of 20. In both commercial and recreational sectors, the vast majority of harvested red snapper are between 2 and 7 years old. 

Red snappers are opportunistic feeders. Their diets consist of just about anything they encounter that will fit in their mouths. Other fish, tunicates, squid, crabs, shrimp and zooplankton make up much of their diet. 

Evan Clark caught this great red snapper off one of the Timbalier rigs out of Port Fourchon last July.

Red snappers have been a constant source of contention between anglers and fisheries managers. Lots of controversy surrounding surveys have plagued the efforts to protect these fish, which are seen as overfished in some areas, but widely abundant in others. 

Short harvesting seasons mean anglers targeting other fish often catch — and must release — many quality red snapper throughout the year. Due to the depths these fish are usually caught, this often results in the death of released fish, adding further concern to the stability of the species. 

Louisiana record is also world record

Red snapper have a sloped profile, and their bodies are bright red on the backs, a lighter red or pinkish color along the sides, and pinkish-white on their bellies. They have red irises, medium to large scales and a spiny dorsal fin with 10 spines and 14 soft dorsal rays. They are sometimes confused with vermillion snapper and cubera snapper. Smaller red snapper often have a large dark spot on their upper sides, but these almost always fade completely away as the fish grows.

The Louisiana state-record red snapper weighed 50.25 pounds and was caught by Capt. Doc Kennedy in June 1996. Kennedy caught the fish in South Timbalier Block 185. This fish is also listed as the IGFA world record.

John J. Bullock caught Mississippi’s state record red snapper in August 1995. The fish weighed 37 pounds, 11.2 ounces.

About Brian Cope 216 Articles
Brian Cope of Edisto Island, S.C., is a retired Air Force combat communications technician. He has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of South Carolina and has been writing about the outdoors since 2006. He’s spent half his life hunting and fishing. The rest, he said, has been wasted.