One of the most popular sport fishes in the Gulf of Mexico, the northern red snapper is a powerful predator that historically reached sizes of over three feet (one meter) and over 80 pounds (~36 kg). Though many snappers throughout its range are similar in appearance, the northern red snapper reaches the largest size and is the most highly targeted by both sport fishers and by the seafood industry. Throughout the last several decades, populations of northern red snapper have declined, and several of these other species of red-colored snappers have been mistakenly or deceitfully marketed and sold as northern red snapper. This so-called “seafood fraud” is a major problem throughout this species’ range.
Northern red snappers are active predators and eat just about anything that is smaller than them, including smaller fishes, crustaceans, octopuses, squids, etc. On hard bottoms and rocky and artificial reefs throughout their range, northern red snappers are one of the top predators, but adults are eaten by sharks, very large bony fishes, and marine mammals, and juveniles are eaten by a variety of medium to large fishes.
Northern red snappers reproduce through a behavior known as broadcast spawning, where several females release their eggs and several males release sperm into the water column above the seafloor, at the same time. This method increases the likelihood that fertilized eggs will not be eaten by egg predators near the seafloor and will instead be carried away by the currents. Northern red snappers reach sexual maturity by two years of age, but older females are known to produce higher numbers of higher quality eggs. Unfortunately, juveniles of this species live in the same habitat with commercially important and extremely valuable shrimp and are captured accidentally, in very large numbers, by bottom trawlers targeting other species. This activity threatens the ability of northern red snappers to maintain viable populations.
The accidental capture of juveniles and the heavy direct fishing pressure on this species by commercial and recreational fisheries both threaten northern red snapper populations throughout its range. A recent worrisome decline in populations of this species has led to tight regulation of northern red snapper fishing activities in both state and federal waters in the United States and in Mexico. Without continuing enforcement, the commercial viability of this species could be at risk. Fortunately, the short time required for young northern red snappers to reach sexual maturity means that decimated populations should be able to recover relatively quickly, with strong management. However, accidental bycatch of juveniles may continue to threaten the species. In the wake of northern red snapper declines, several other species have been deceitfully labeled as this species in markets and restaurants throughout its range.