Atlantic Red Snapper

Atlantic Red Snapper, Lutjanus campechanus

The Atlantic Red Snapper, Lutjanus campechanus, whose common Spanish name is huachinango del Gulfo and whose local name is huachinango, is a species in the Snapper or Lutjanidae Family, known collectively as pargos in Mexico. The Southern Red Snapper, Lutjanus purpureus, has very recently been determined to be one and the same species and they have been consolidated into this species. Globally, there are sixty seven species in the genus Lutjanus, nineteen of which are found in Mexican waters, ten in the Atlantic and nine in the Pacific.

The Atlantic Red Snappers have oval bodies with a sloped profile and have a uniform reddish-pink-silvery sheen that is whitish dorsally. Their body is wider than the Pacific Red Snapper, Lutjanus peru (37 to 41% versus 33 to 37%). Their fins have a similar uniform color as the body. They have a large head with small red eyes, needle-like teeth, and a pointed snout. Their anal fin tapers posteriorly and their dorsal fin is continuous. They have long pectoral fins that reach their anus. Juveniles have a dark spot on their upper side below the rear of their dorsal fin. Their body is covered with medium to large scales.

The Atlantic Red Snappers are a schooling species normally found offshore near the bottom on the continental shelf, over deep reefs, banks, rocky bottoms, and around artificial structures at depths between 33 and 620 feet. Older and larger fish are found in deeper locations seeking cover in ledges, rocky outcroppings, and wrecks. During colder water periods they move further offshore. They reach a maximum length of 1.00 meter (3 feet 3 inches) and 23 kg (50 pounds) in weight. They feed on crabs, mollusks, octopus, shrimp, and small fish. In turn they are preyed upon by jacks, groupers, and sharks; it is believed that the decline in Red Snapper populations has had a significant impact on the populations of these larger fish as well. They reach sexual maturity at two years and grow approximately four inches per year for the first six years followed by a generally declining growth rate thereafter. They are oviparous with individual fish spawning several times a year, producing as many as nine million eggs during a single spawning event. The eggs are pelagic, spherical, transparent, and buoyant; they float on the surface of the water before hatching within twenty and twenty-seven hours after fertilization. They have a lifespan of up to fifty seven years.

In Mexican waters the Atlantic Red Snapper are found in all waters of the Atlantic.

The Atlantic Red Snapper is most likely confused with the Blackfin Snapper, Lutjanus buccanella (distinctive black spot at pectoral fin base).

The Atlantic Red Snappers are popular game fish, highly prized food fish, and an essential export product of Mexico commanding high prices. Commercially sold “Red Snapper” of course has a high possibility of begin a different and lower priced fish including the dreaded Tilapia. They are caught at equal levels by recreational and commercial fishermen via traditional deep water 50-pound class gear with heavily weighted multiple hooks rigs or via Mexican pangueros using hand lines on live and cut bait and artificial lures; they are also taken at a small level by spear fishermen around natural and artificial structures. Annual recreational catches are on the level of 1.5 to 4.0 million fish. This species has been significantly overfished with the amounts and sizes of individual fish now in significant decline. They are now the focus of conversation which is having a positive effect. The shrimp industry has had a major impact on the population declines due to habitat destruction and of young fish caught in shrimp trawls. Discarded juvenile Atlantic Red Snappers by the shrimp industry are estimated to be on the level of 300,000 fish per annum which have a 90% mortality rate. The United States Government has recently established catch limits, however, global support for conservation is limited. Various regulations to try to save this species have been recently implemented including the establishment of daily catch limits, size limits, commercial quotas, gear restrictions, seasonal area closures, closure to trawlers and long-line fishermen, and enhanced scientific monitoring of stock status. An effort to enhance the population via aquaculture in the southern United States is currently ongoing.

Note: this fish, on occasion will show up in the fresh fish section of many of the major supermarkets in the greater Los Cabos area marketed as “Huachinango del Gulfo“.  They are always “old,” beat to hell with the color badly faded, and of very poor quality and sold at high prices indicative that they have been transported from the East Coast.

Atlantic Red Snapper, Lutjanus campechanus. Fish caught from waters of the Florida Middle Grounds, March 2016. Length: 46 cm (18 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of George Brinkman, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.