Red Snapper

Red snapper

Lutjanus campechanus


    Snapper, Genuine red snapper, American reds, Spot snapper


    U.S. wild-caught from North Carolina to Texas



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Red Snapper

Red snapper in Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.


Harvested off the southeastern United States for well over a century, red snapper is an iconic American fish, extremely popular among commercial and recreational fishermen alike. But this popularity comes with a downside – red snapper has been fished too heavily for decades, and both stocks are currently below the level scientists have determined to be sustainable (overfished). However, both stocks are now managed under rebuilding plans, the strategy used to manage harvest at a level that will allow an overfished stock to rebuild to target population levels by a specified deadline

In the past, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper commercial sector had too many fishermen to be an environmentally and economically sustainable fishery. As the red snapper population declined, the number of fishermen remained too high, and they raced to harvest a share of this once-abundant resource. Fishing seasons started getting shorter, and commercial fishing became inefficient and unsafe, catching too many juvenile red snapper and further hindering the rebuilding of the stock. In response to these poor conditions, commercial fishermen voted to change how this fishery was managed and supported a commercial “catch share program.” In 2007, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries implemented an Individual Fishing Quota program (a type of catch share) for commercial red snapper to reduce the number of vessels and improve the operation of the fishery. Under the program, managers set a limit on the amount of red snapper that can be caught every year, then allocate fixed shares of this amount to eligible fishermen. Fishermen can harvest their share whenever they choose, slowing the pace of the fishery and easing the pressure on the resource.

In the few years the program has been in place, commercial fishermen are no longer exceeding catch limits. And although fewer fishermen can participate in the fishery, the remaining ones are earning more money for their catch. Best of all, scientists recently confirmed that the Gulf red snapper stock is rebuilding as planned and commercial catch has not exceeded the allowable catch limit. Since overfishing is no longer occurring, managers recently increased the amount of red snapper fishermen can catch.

Looking Ahead

Managing snapper and grouper fisheries is challenging due to the large number of species in the management unit and the lack of basic data on many of the species. On top of that, some of these species grow slowly, aren’t able to mature until they are several years old, and live a long time. These species often take years to fully recover from overfishing.



Red snapper are generally found at depths between 30 and 620 feet along the eastern coast of North, Central, and northern South America and in the Gulf of Mexico. They are rare north of the Carolinas.

Larval red snapper swim freely within the water column. Juveniles live in shallow waters over sandy or muddy bottom habitat. Adults live on the bottom, usually near hard structures on the continental shelf that have moderate to high relief (for example, coral reefs, artificial reefs, rocks, ledges, and caves), sloping soft-bottom areas, and limestone deposits.



Red snapper grow at a moderate rate, up to about 40 inches long and 50 pounds. They can live a long time—snapper as old as 57 have been reported in the Gulf of Mexico and as old as 54 in the South Atlantic. Females are able to reproduce as early as age two. Males and females spawn from May to October, depending on their location.

Red snapper feed on fish, shrimp, crab, worms, cephalopods (for example, octopus, squid, etc.), and some plankton (tiny floating plants and animals). Young red snapper are food for the large carnivorous fish that share their same habitat, such as jacks, groupers, sharks, barracudas, and morays. Large marine mammals and turtles also eat snapper.



Red snapper in deeper waters tend to be redder than those caught in shallower waters. They have a long triangular face with the upper part sloping more strongly than the lower. Their jaws are equal, with the lower one sometimes slightly projecting. They have enlarged canine teeth, which is why they’re called “snappers.”



Scientists from NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center monitor the abundance of red snapper stocks. Scientists, managers, and stakeholders assess the status of these stocks through the Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) process.



The most recent Gulf of Mexico red snapper stock assessment (2013) shows that, although the stock is still overfished (at 37 percent of the target population level), combined commercial and recreational catches have been kept below prescribed overfishing limits and the stock is rebuilding.

The most recent assessment of South Atlantic red snapper (2010) indicates the population declined until the late 1980s, then increased some in the mid-1990s due to management and successful reproduction and survival of offspring. Spawning biomass has generally increased since then, but continues to be well below the target level (currently at 13 percent).




Harvesting Red Snapper

Commercial fishermen mainly use hook and line gear (handlines and electric reels) to harvest red snapper. They attach multiple hooks to a vertical line and weight it at the bottom. They also sometimes use longlines (in the Gulf of Mexico) and spears. Recreational anglers primarily use hook and line gear and spears and harvest red snapper.

In the Gulf of Mexico, hook and line fishermen are required to use circle hooks and dehooking devices to improve the chance of survival of any unintentionally caught fish. They’re also encouraged to use venting tools when necessary. (When reef fish are brought quickly to the surface by hook and line, the gas in their swimbladder can overexpand. Venting tools disclaimer help deflate the abdominal cavity, preventing serious injury to the fish. This also helps the fish descend after being released.) Management also prohibits fishing in certain areas of the Gulf to protect sensitive fish populations and habitats.

Also in the Gulf of Mexico, longlines used to harvest reef fish can also unintentionally catch sea turtles. Several measures disclaimer are in place to reduce this bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishery, including certain times or areas where fishermen cannot fish, gear restrictions and handling requirements, and a limit on the number of vessels that can participate in the fishery.

Circle hooks are also required in the South Atlantic for snapper-grouper species north of latitude 28° N. Harvest and possession of red snapper is currently prohibited in the South Atlantic.



Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils

Current management:
South Atlantic: Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan

  • In 2010, management prohibited harvest of red snapper in the South Atlantic to protect the population from too much fishing pressure and to allow the number of fish to increase.
  • In September 2012, managers temporarily reopened commercial and recreational harvest of red snapper after new scientific information projected the population will continue to improve, even with some allowable catch. Opening this fishery supports recreational and commercial fishing jobs and businesses.
  • Managers are working on a long-term plan that may allow for some catches of red snapper as the population continues to grow.

Gulf of Mexico: Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan

  • Rebuilding plan implemented in 2001 with goal of rebuilding the Gulf red snapper stock by 2032.
  • Managers set a total allowable catch for the fishery, allocating 51 percent of it to the commercial annual catch limit and 49 percent to recreational annual catch limits.
  • Fishermen must have a commercial permit to harvest red snapper.
  • Individual fishing quota program, which allocates the commercial catch among individual fishermen and corporations. Fishermen may harvest their quotas whenever they choose to do so and must report how much they harvest.
  • Minimum size limit to protect the spawning stock and juveniles.  
  • Restrictions on the type of gear fishermen may use and where they can fish to reduce bycatch.
  • Young snapper are taken as bycatch by shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico. To reduce this bycatch, fishery managers require fish bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) in shrimp trawls. BRDs are designed to allow fish to exit the net while shrimp are retained. If this bycatch isn’t reduced enough, managers will prohibit shrimp trawling in certain seasons or areas to meet bycatch reduction goals.
  • Areas closed to fishing to protect sensitive fish populations and habitats. Vessels with commercial reef fish permits must have a working satellite-based vessel monitoring system, (VMS) to enforce these closures.

State management measures are fairly consistent with the federal measures noted above. Some states, such as South Carolina, automatically adopt federal regulations; others have separate regulations.


Annual Harvest

In the Gulf of Mexico, commercial fishermen harvested more than 3.6 million pounds of red snapper in 2011. Recreational fishermen landed more than 4.6 million pounds in 2011.



In 2011, the ex-vessel value of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper commercial fishery was $11.6 million. The median ex-vessel price per pound was $4.25 in 2011. (Ex-vessel refers to the price fishermen receive for their catch.)

Data on imports and exports do not differentiate between species of snapper and grouper. In general, imported snappers and groupers are dominant in the U.S. market, with imports far exceeding the amount supplied by U.S. commercial fisheries.



Red snapper are a favorite target for sport fishermen. In the Gulf of Mexico, managers allot 49 percent of the total allowable catch to the recreational fishery. Red snapper must be a certain size to be caught, and there is a limit on how many red snapper anglers can catch per day. The recreational fishing season is from June 1 to September 30 (but this varies year to year as it is subject to early closure if harvest projections indicate the season should be shorter). Charter vessels must have a permit. In the South Atlantic, red snapper typically must be a certain size to be caught, and there is a limit on how many red snapper anglers can catch per day. However, all harvest, including that by recreational fishermen, has been prohibited in the South Atlantic since 2010. In September 2012, the recreational red snapper fishery in the South Atlantic was temporarily reopened. During the recreational season, fishermen were allowed to keep one fish per person per day with no size limit. The 2012 recreational catch limit was 9,399 fish.



Many fish that are red are passed off as red snapper in the marketplace, but the only species that can be legally labeled red snapper is the American red snapper, Lutjanus campechanus. Red snapper have trademark red skin and red eyes and come from domestic fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic and are also imported from Mexico. To aid in identification, domestic American red snapper is almost always sold with the skin on. Beware of “snapper” sold on the West Coast; it could actually be rockfish, which has a completely different taste and texture.

Red snapper is lean and moist, with a sweetly mild but distinctive flavor. The semi-firm meat is pinkish with yellow tones when raw and turns somewhat lighter when cooked. (Seafood Business, 2011)



U.S. caught red snapper is available frozen year-round and available fresh July through September (although this varies by year).



Snapper is low in saturated fat and sodium and is a very good source of protein.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 100
Protein 20.51 g
Fat, total 1.34 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.285 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 37 mg
Selenium 38.2 mcg
Sodium 64 mg

Red snapper table of nutrition