Species Spotlight on Red Snapper

Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), also known as Northern red snapper and American red snapper, is one of the most well-known food fishes of the United States. Its popularity extends far beyond its native range and is frequently seen on seafood menus. The fish live along the US Southeast coast, Caribbean, and in the Gulf of Mexico. Young fish can be found closer to shore but adult snapper prefer deeper waters, down to several hundred feet. The distinctive color of red snapper is more pronounced in the deep water fish. They prefer “hard bottom” and can be found along sloped ledges, wrecks, reefs and rocky bottoms.

Snappers of all types get their name from their feeding style – snapping up small fish and crustaceans with the help of large canine teeth. They are a long-lived species, over 50 years for some big fish. However red snapper mature at only 2 years, which may reflect their role as prey for larger predators like grouper and barracuda. They grow moderately fast and a large red snapper can approach 50lbs. in weight.

Red Snapper range Smithsonian Institution

How Red Snapper are Harvested

This historically important fish is commercially harvested within two sectors of American fishing territory: Gulf of Mexico and the Southern Atlantic States. Snapper is mostly caught using hook-and-line gear, but also by longline. Gear used must adhere to strict regulations to eliminate by-catch and to protect sea turtles and marine mammals. Restricted fishing areas, limited access, circle hooks and de-hooking devices are just part of the system to keep the red snapper fisheries sustainable. Commercial landings for red snapper in American waters were over 7 million pounds in 2022.

There is also a robust recreational fishery for red snapper, making it one of the most popular sport fish. Most of these fish are also caught by hook-and-line gear using electric reels due to the depth the large fish live. According to NOAA, over 15 million pounds, more than double the commercial catch, were caught recreationally in 2022.

Snapper landings, both commercial and recreational, saw significant declines during the late 1970’s and 80’s. This began the management plans by National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA, starting with minimum size limits.

Current management plans began in the early 2000’s for the Gulf of Mexico stock. The latest assessments by NOAA state the Gulf of Mexico stock is not overfished and and landing are within acceptable levels. Conversely, NOAA states the South Atlantic stock is currently overfished and is under severely reduced quotas since 2010. Harvesting was prohibited altogether from this sector for the 2015-16 fishing season.

Buying Red Snapper

Red Snapper from NOAA

Red snapper is available year round either fresh or frozen in either whole fish or fillets. Fresh fillets should have an off-white/grayish color with a firm texture before cooking. The fish’s popularity has led to it being one of the species most frequently switched in cases of fish fraud.

The mild flavor and white flesh is easy to misidentify, especially if you are not familiar with the taste, or if it is covered in flavorful sauce. Some, but certainly not all of this fish fraud with red snapper is probably accidental. When buying raw fish fillets, it is hard to distinguish red snapper from various other fish, like grouper.

To help ensure you are getting red snapper, it should be sold skin-on. The distinctive red-pinkish skin will help identify it, but there are other fish with a similar skin like the smaller vermilion snapper, the unrelated Pacific red snapper and Acadian redfish/Ocean Perch.

Snapper is very popular due to its mild yet sweet flavor with slightly firm, whitish meat. However the flavor and texture is considered much better than similar looking species. It is also a very versatile fish that lends itself to almost any cooking method from the grill to the stew pot. A popular method of preparing is to cook the whole fish, skin-on for a dramatic presentation.