Bringing Red Snapper Back from the Brink

Restoring this Iconic Fish in the Gulf of Mexico

An iconic fish and a valued fishery

Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) is one of the most popular and economically important fish species in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. It is prized as a beloved fish that is known for being excellent table fare and for being eager to bite a fishing hook. However, demand for red snapper sometimes has been too popular to sustain a healthy stock, and the politics surrounding the management of the red snapper fishery can be fierce.

The restoration of the fishery follows a disastrous crash in the red snapper population a few decades ago due to mismanagement and overfishing. The red snapper’s recovery is a success story, but the story isn’t over. This is a case study about what it truly takes to rebuild and maintain a healthy fishery that continues to face significant challenges on its road to sustainability.

A healthy and sustainable red snapper fishery is important not just to the fishery itself, but also to the commercial, for-hire and recreational anglers and to local communities and their economies. It is in the long-term interest of everyone to sustain the fishery for communities and for their livelihoods.

The goal of fishery management is to have a sustainable resource that can provide the most opportunity for the largest number of people to be able to fish forever. What we are always trying to do is make sure that every year, as best we can, we know that we are leaving enough fish in the water so that fishing is good for the next year, too.

Meredith Moore, Director, Fish Conservation Program, Ocean Conservancy

Gulf red snapper: an introduction

The red snapper is an iconic fish in the Gulf of Mexico region of the United States, which includes ocean waters off the states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Outside of the Gulf, northern and southern red snapper are also found along the eastern coasts of North America, Central America, and northern South America.

An illustration of a Red Snapper

Adult red snapper often live near coral reefs and other hard structures on the continental shelf, while juveniles tend to be found in muddy or sandy habitats, including in estuaries. Red snapper can be found in waters as shallow as 30 feet or as deep as 620 feet.

Red snapper eat other fish, shrimp, crab, worms, octopus and squid, and some plankton. They can grow up to about 40 inches long, weigh as much as about 50 pounds, and live for upwards of 50 years.

Learn more here.

Nearly loved to death

Red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico are favored by anglers and seafood lovers because of the mild flavor of the fish. People have long enjoyed fishing for and eating the deep rosy red-colored snapper, which is a commercially important fish stock and among the most highly-sought recreational fish in the region.

c620282 1 (1)
A girl takes a close look at the open mouth of a red snapper - Pensacola, Florida. © Richard Parks

Recorded reports of red snapper catch begin as early as the 1840s, according to histories of the modern fishery. The fact that red snapper are highly sought after and relatively easy to locate on reefs is a combination that has made it particularly challenging for fishery managers to maintain healthy population levels of red snapper. As a popular fish that so many people want, it isn’t surprising that management decisions can be contentious and difficult.

In 1988, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (commonly referred to as NOAA Fisheries) first concluded that red snapper were being overfished, which means the size of the fish stock in the Gulf had dropped so low that it threatened the fishery’s long-term ability to produce a sustainable yield. By the early 1990s, the red snapper stock had plummeted to about 2% of its historic biomass because of overfishing. This was due to a combination of factors, including management measures that were not successful in keeping fishermen within their limits, increased efficiency of the fishing fleet due to advances in technology and gear, significant growth in the recreational fishing sector, and the volume of red snapper that were caught incidentally—referred to as bycatch—as part of fishing operations that were targeting other species.

I think you can keep calling the red snapper fishery a success story, because we're talking about the most resilient fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. It was beat down and brought back up.

Captain Jim Green, Third-generation fisherman out of Destin, Florida

A Red Snapper Management Primer

Atlantic red snapper in Florida
Atlantic red snapper in Florida © Florida Fish and Wildlife

Red snapper are federally managed in the Gulf (e.g., in areas where state waters end out to 200 nautical miles offshore). The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is the group that develops measures to manage the stock. Those measures are then approved and implemented by NOAA Fisheries, which is the agency with regulatory authority over federal marine fisheries. Together, the Gulf Council and NOAA Fisheries make management decisions that must adhere to the requirements of the primary law governing marine fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

In 1990, a red snapper rebuilding plan took effect to restore the overfished stock. Revised in 2005, the rebuilding plan has faced many obstacles, but it is now well more than halfway through a 27-year timeframe to restore a healthy stock by 2032. During the rebuilding process, the annual allowable red snapper catch has increased from a low of just five million pounds to more than 16 million pounds. In addition to the annual catch limits that help manage the red snapper fishery, permit requirements for commercial and for-hire vessels also are useful in managing the red snapper fishing effort.

Managing and rebuilding the fishery

On the path to restoring red snapper, the fishery has had challenges to overcome in four main areas: bycatch in the shrimp fishery, commercial fishing, recreational fishing from for-hire charter vessels with paying customers, and private anglers.

Each challenge has needed to be addressed to help the stock recover. And, in each of these cases, leaders within the fishing community have helped lead the way, recognizing and championing positive changes that are in the best long-term interest to sustain the fishery and the livelihood of the fishing community.

Select images to jump to specific sections

Reducing shrimp bycatch

Progress toward restoring the fishery included successfully reducing the bycatch of juvenile red snapper by the shrimp trawling fleet as an early step. Previously, shrimp trawls caught millions of juvenile red snapper as bycatch each year, contributing to the decline of the stock. The required use of bycatch reduction devices—which allow red snapper and some other non-target species to escape trawls—began in 1998 and helped make incremental progress toward rebuilding the stock. Likewise, the establishment of limits to shrimp trawl fishing activity have helped reduce juvenile red snapper bycatch.

Industry-led improvements to commercial fishing

Commercial fishermen led the next major management reform by keeping their catch of red snapper within sustainable limits. The commercial sector implemented an individual fishing quota (IFQ) system whereby fishermen were assigned tradable fishing privileges based on their historical participation in the fishery. Under this system, individual fishermen receive an allocation of the overall quota or Annual Catch Limit (ACL; the amount of fish that can be caught sustainably by fishermen over a period of one year). This approach is used to manage the sector’s 51% of the total red snapper ACL. This approach is used to allocate the sector’s 51% of the total red snapper ACL. The IFQ system increased accountability in the commercial fishery and eliminated overfishing by the commercial sector. Since 2007, when the IFQ was implemented, the commercial sector has complied with its catch limit every year.

Improving recreational fishing

With the recreational fishing sector allocated the other 49% of the red snapper ACL, recreational fishing has a significant impact on the recovery of red snapper. The recreational sector is divided into two subsectors (called components): the for-hire component operates charter vessels that take paying customers to fish whereas the private recreational component consists of anglers who fish from their own or somebody else’s private boat.

In the mid-2000s, the recreational sector as a whole routinely exceeded its ACL for a number of reasons: there were more and more recreational anglers, long fishing seasons in state waters cut into the length of the federal fishing seasons, and the average size of a red snapper was larger as the stock recovered (which meant catch limits—set in pounds—were reached sooner and with fewer fish caught). The length of the federal fishing season is set based on a projection of how long it takes anglers to catch their ACL, and the length of recreational fishing seasons for red snapper got shorter and shorter to constrain catch and fishing effort. However, these shorter federal seasons ran counter to perceptions by anglers that the fishery was improving because the anglers were more frequently catching larger and larger red snapper as the stock recovered. That led to frustration. While some improvements have been made in the management of recreational fishing for red snapper, a number of management challenges remain, particularly for the private recreational fishery.

people riding on white boat during daytime

Splitting the Sector: “For-Hire” stays within their catch limits

For-hire fishermen wanted more certainty for their businesses and their industry for the long term in the context of a growing private recreational fishery. In addition, for-hire fishermen wanted to ensure they could stay within their catch limits. To meet these objectives, the for-hire fleet worked with fishery managers to establish “sector separation” in 2015. Sector separation split the recreational sector’s ACL between two components: for-hire fishermen and private anglers. This gave both components their own allocation of the total recreational ACL. Every year since then, the for-hire component has stayed within its catch limits. Staying within these limits has allowed the fishing season to spread across more days, which means more days on the water and more opportunities for trips taking paying customers offshore.

Sunrise over Pensacola Bay

The root cause of recent red snapper declines: private angler management

The big remaining challenge facing the red snapper fishery, and likely the root cause of a recent decline in red snapper stock, is collective overages from the private angling component. While the vast majority of anglers are conservationists who do their best to follow fishing regulations, the private recreational component includes millions of individual anglers who collectively took more than 56 million fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico region in 2020 alone, according to NOAA Fisheries.

Due to the sheer numbers, this sector is very difficult to manage and routinely exceeds its ACL by large margins. Individual anglers might only catch a few red snapper each time they fish; however, those few fish reeled in by each angler are compounded by the millions of anglers. All of this—combined with better technology to more easily locate and catch fish and the difficulty of accurately counting fish that are caught—adds up to persistent catch overages. It also means that ACLs are reached more quickly, which leads to shorter fishing seasons.

Management of the private recreational component is a big challenge for red snapper sustainability. Many management issues related to private anglers have been heightened in recent years, leading to increased political scrutiny and highly contentious management.

To be clear, the vast majority of private recreational fishermen are conservationists and are doing everything they can individually to follow the rules–they fish when the season is open, they only keep as many fish as they are allowed, and they try to carefully release fish that can’t be brought back to shore. However, the sheer number of recreational fishermen in the Gulf and the challenges of accurately accounting for the activities have led to persistent catch overages.

Ocean Conservancy’s Meredith Moore in a March 10, 2023 letter to U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz

Fish politics over private angling

The pressure and demand to fish amidst shorter seasons came to a head in 2017. For that year, NOAA Fisheries had to restrict the private recreational fishing season for red snapper in the Gulf to just three days, a number determined by scientists and supported by the best available science. However, then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross overruled NOAA Fisheries and announced an extended 42-day season. This extension of the season was illegal, and a judge ruled in a subsequent lawsuit that the agency could not allow such an extension again.

You need to be a good steward of the fishery. The healthier the fish stocks are, the more fish I'll be able to catch. As a commercial fisherman, my livelihood depends on the stock. If the stock is in bad shape, I start losing access to what I can catch.

William “Bubba” Cochrane II, Commercial fisherman, Galveston, Texas; president, Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance William “Bubba” Cochrane II, Commercial fisherman, Galveston, Texas; president, Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance

A regional experiment: State management


Figure 1. Red snapper state management boundaries for the Gulf of Mexico. Light blue shading along the U.S. coast indicates state waters. The grey line indicates the boundary of the U.S. exclusive economic zone. Lettered lines in red indicate boundaries between state management jurisdictions within federal waters. The map is from a NOAA Fisheries and Gulf Council report.

Looking for a way to move forward and improve red snapper management, the Gulf Council and NOAA Fisheries tried using a form of regional management—known as “state management”—for private recreational fishing in federal waters. State management was tested through a special permit in 2018 and 2019. NOAA Fisheries divided the private recreational ACL into five slices, one slice for each Gulf state. The states were then delegated responsibility to set appropriate management measures in their extended state waters that would keep red snapper fishing levels below each state’s portion of the ACL and prevent overfishing. To supplement federal data, each state also developed its own survey methodology to estimate fish landings from their private recreational anglers.

In 2020, state managers formalized this system and made it the official way the five gulf states would co-manage the private recreational red snapper fishery under the federal fishery management plan. However, a critical issue remained: ensuring catch levels are sustainable.

The problem with state management: Different surveys create a data comparison issue

Although designed to complement the federal system, the new data collection approach under state management meant that six different surveys (five states and the federal government) were independently estimating recreational catch and effort. Because each survey has a unique design (which contains different biases and uncertainties in the process of estimating catch), the data from different surveys are not directly comparable and cannot be directly added together. They also can’t be used to directly compare whether catch has exceeded each state’s allocated ACL. In essence, the units each state uses to measure its catch differ from the units used to set the original ACLs (an unwieldy problem akin to having multiple currencies used in different countries with no currency exchange rate). This lack of data conversion led to repeated catch overages by the private recreational sector, and it even triggered an overfishing determination by NOAA Fisheries in 2019 when red snapper landings across all sectors exceeded the overfishing limit, or OFL.

Graph of 2019 MRIP data and the exceedance of the OFL
Figure 2. Ocean Conservancy graph based on 2019 red snapper landings from the Marine Recreational Information Program. © Ocean Conservancy

Keeping the catch under the science-based annual catch limit is the cornerstone of the U.S. management system, and fishery managers work to set measures that are expected to constrain catch to stay under this limit (e.g., setting the number of days people can go fishing). Not only did the state management system for red snapper allow catch in excess of ACLs, the system was inconsistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal law that governs fishery management. The catch overages likely led to localized areas where red snapper were severely depleted.

The good news is that there is a workable solution to deal with the differences in the data produced by state and federal surveys. The solution is called calibration. Unfortunately, it took fishery managers years to put this solution in place, which led to several years of overharvesting by the private recreational sector.

The solution for state management: Calibration

© R.D. Smith

The Gulf states and the federal government have recently undertaken efforts to calibrate private recreational fishing data produced by the six surveys under state management, which has restored accurate accounting for catch in the recreational red snapper fishery and corrected the primary design flaw in state management. Calibration is a commonly used scientific practice that provides a way to translate estimates among surveys and preserve the reliability of long-term trends in data. The calibration process accounts for sources of variation and persistent differences in surveys and converts historical estimates of red snapper landings into a “common currency” for reporting. Calibration also allows scientists to integrate the various survey results when assessing the status of the red snapper stock as a whole—which in turn is used to estimate future ACLs—and should lead to better management of the stock.
To fix the data issues in state management, a multi-year, multi-organizational process has developed the necessary calibration ratios to make appropriate comparisons between state landings and ACL possible. With calibration, state management is finally a legal management system for Gulf red snapper and the private recreational sector.

Whenever existing and new surveys produce estimates that are systematically different from one another, calibration is an essential step that must occur before the new estimates can be used in science and management.

NOAA Fisheries
An underwater image of a red snapper.

What’s next for red snapper

The red snapper’s recovery still faces many challenges, and recent scientific data indicate that progress toward rebuilding the stock has slowed or even started to reverse, which could be due to recent unsustainable fishing pressure and overages from the private recreational fishery. Achieving a sustainable red snapper fishery relies on the accountability of all fishing sectors to stay within their catch limits, on using the best available science to make decisions, on transparency and clear communication to create trust in the management system, and on adapting to new management challenges.

The “Great Red Snapper Count” was a congressionally mandated and funded study to take a one-time snapshot of the total abundance of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. Studies like the Great Red Snapper Count, if done rigorously and peer-reviewed, can provide helpful information about the fishery that can be considered in management. For instance, while red snapper are characterized as reef fish and are thought to associate primarily with reef habitats, the Great Red Snapper Count uncovered a large population of red snapper that occur over bottom habitats that were previously unaccounted for in stock assessments. The Magnuson-Stevens Act and the regulations to implement the law have established clear and effective processes about how studies such as the Great Red Snapper Count should be brought into the scientific process to ensure that management advice is based on the best available science.

A man joyfully holds up snapper and redfish on the pier - Panama City, Florida.
A man joyfully holds up snapper and redfish on the pier - Panama City, Florida. © Francis P. Johnson

Achieving a sustainable fishery also relies on fairness. Our marine fish stocks are a public resource, and the law requires that they are managed for the long-term benefit of the nation. A sustainable red snapper fishery benefits everybody, and it is in the long-term interest of fishermen and others to sustain the fishery to preserve livelihoods and restore this iconic Gulf fish. We have seen the rebuilding plan make progress for red snapper. It is now a matter of staying the course with policies and management that keep the fishery sustainable and accountable.

We have gotten to a point where things are kind of sustainable with red snapper. The red snapper fishery is a cautious success, and there is reasonable assurance that if things start going south, that surely that we will know how to respond to it. But good things can go bad. It is a human management system. And if people decide in certain aspects that the science isn’t worth supporting, there will be a price paid for it. Ultimately what happens, particularly in fisheries, is that if you ignore the science—either by not doing the science or ignoring the results of that science—you typically end up with overexploitation, and everybody loses out in that process.

Dr. Joseph Powers, Professor of Stock Assessment, Louisiana State University Dr. Joseph Powers, Professor of Stock Assessment, Louisiana State University

What you can do to help

Overall, great progress has been made toward restoring the fishery. For decades, Ocean Conservancy has been working with fishermen, scientists, fishery managers, and others to actively advocate for science-based, sustainable management of Gulf red snapper that works for the people who depend on the fishery for their livelihood and for recreation, for the coastal communities whose culture and economy are uniquely tied to the fishery, and for future generations to enjoy a healthy, sustainable red snapper fishery.

You can help support continued rebuilding of the Gulf red snapper fishery and the sustainability of U.S. fisheries by supporting Ocean Conservancy and becoming a member today.

Managing the red snapper fishery is a process of constant refinement and constant change, because the ocean changes, the pressures on the fisheries change, the way people fish changes, how many people are fishing changes. So we're always trying to navigate all of that. But the ultimate goal is always understanding the system as best we can, and managing it so that everyone can keep going fishing. It's never about taking things away from people. It's always about trying to give opportunity to people, if we can.

Meredith Moore, Director, Fish Conservation Program, Ocean Conservancy
silhouette of boat on sea during sunset
Back to Top Up Arrow