Red snapper, or lutjanus campechanus, are one of the most popular fish species sought after by sport fishermen and commercial fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern and Western Atlantic Ocean. Because of their high popularity, regulations surrounding the fishing and capture of red snapper have been passed to prevent the extinction of the species and promote the regrowth of their population.
That’s great news for anglers who want to be able to look forward to hooking red snapper well into the future, but it also means a fishing trip for red snapper will have to be planned months in advance depending on when the season starts, where anglers want to catch the fish, and where the final docking destination of the fishing vessel will be. Laws governing individual catch limits and permits exist at the federal and state level.
Fortunately, with just a bit more planning than a fishing trip to a distant location normally requires, anglers can ably prepare themselves to catch the best red snapper they can and bring it back to shore to sell or prepare to eat themselves. There are regulations regarding impacts of fishing gear on the natural habitat of red snapper, which is the area in and surrounding reefs and therefore need protection from damage caused by negligent human activity.
Anglers won’t be too limited by these rules and regulations as long as they’re well aware of what they can and cannot do. The plans for rebuilding the red snapper populations have very recently been implemented, in 2005 for the Gulf of Mexico and 2010 for the Atlantic Ocean region. The more successful these rebuilding plans are, the sooner the red snapper will rebound and individual catch limits will increase.
In addition, the regulations will only work if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) can properly measure the number of fish captured and the general population remaining. To do this, non-commercial anglers have to register their personal catches at the dock. Fortunately, there’s an app available to make this process much easier.
It may seem complicated, but there isn’t that much red tape when it comes to red snapper. The season has many particulars depending on where you go fishing and knowing those particulars is key to maximizing your catches and your total enjoyment of a red snapper fishing excursion. Anglers who have only seen the red snapper on a plate with lemon juice and herbed butter should read up on the physical identifiers of the red snapper so they know what they’ve reeled in when they see it.
Read on for a comprehensive look at the red snapper and everything anglers will need to reel one in when the red snapper are chewing.
What Does a Red Snapper Look Like?
Before we walk you through the rules and regulations, let’s talk about the main event. Red snapper have several unique identifying features and there’s likely not too many people who would confuse it with a goldfish, but the last thing you want is to hook a blackfin or lane snapper or a bigeye and call it out wrong to your buddies. Here’s some defining physical characteristics of a real red snapper:
- Goes without saying, but they’re red on the outside. What you might not know is that the red snapper caught in deeper waters tend to be redder.
- They’re called snappers because of their comparatively larger canine teeth
- Red snapper have a long, triangular face with a steep slope in the upper part
- They might have a slight underbite but their jaws are mostly the same length
There are also some biological specifics that might help you or your captain stake out the best fishing spot to catch red snapper. Namely:
- They spawn from May to October depending on their location
- Red snapper eat fish, shrimp, crab, worms, squid, octopus, and some other smaller floating plants and animals like plankton
- Red snapper are eaten by larger fish such as sharks, jacks, barracudas, grouper, and moray.
Red snapper are generally 15 to 40 inches long and weigh up to 50 pounds. They are rare north of the Carolinas but can be found in the rest of the American Atlantic and in the Gulf of Mexico. They can be found at depths anywhere from 30 to 620 feet. They tend to form large schools around reefs and wrecks. Newly matured red snapper tend to stick to the bottom of their environments in what are called benthic habitats and then move to low-relief environments, meaning places with a more even bottom surface. As they age, red snapper tend to move to deeper and more high-relief environments, especially reefs. The largest red snapper spread out over more open habitats and reefs to account for their size and dietary needs.
Where Can I Find Red Snapper?
In addition to helping anglers find the best place to hook a red snapper, knowing where they live will also help navigate the regulations and find the correct license or licenses to make sure you can keep your catch. Worst case, you’ll have to throw back your red snapper or wait until you have the free time to go in-season. Fortunately, the red snapper fishing seasons come at a time when most people have some vacation time. It just depends on how far you want to go and what kind of fishing trip you want.
In the U.S., states with the highest number of red snapper in their coastal waters are Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Each state has their own regulations based on community hearings and surveys of red snapper population in their waters. There is also a unique relationship between the states and the federal regulations, with some automatically adhering to the federal rules and others joining by vote. The good news is that during all this discussion year after year, researchers are finding very positive results. The red snapper population has by and large rebounded to double or triple the numbers and are now being found in places they haven’t ever been seen before and at much lower depths.
When is Red Snapper Season?
There used to be a uniform federal season for catching red snapper, but that’s no longer the case. Now each state along the Gulf of Mexico and from North Carolina south to Florida makes its own regulations about red snapper season. These determinations are made based on studies of the population and the information gathered during that year’s season. Generally, the season is somewhere in the early to mid-summer, with the season closing around August and opening up the next year in July when population numbers allow.
For various reasons having to do with satisfaction from boat charter captains and anglers, these states are always looking to find the best way to determine when red snapper season will be and how best to organize the days within red snapper season that anglers will be able to keep what they catch.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the body responsible for the conservation of many fish populations who live in the waters off the eastern coast of the United States from North Carolina to the Florida Keys, is comprised of members from each of the southeastern states who have Atlantic coastline and makes decisions on annual catch limits (ACLs) and the organization of open fishing days within the season. They also have a mobile app called Fish Rules that makes reporting your red snapper catch pretty easy. We’ll talk more about that later on in this guide.
Forecast of Future Red Snapper Seasons
Red snapper populations have seen a huge benefit from previous accountability measures based on overfishing limits that were crossed in the past. The whole procedure of management and population rebound started in the 1980’s but the SAFMC started in its current form following legislation in 2007. It’s impossible to guess what exactly the next red snapper season will look like and what kind of annual catch limits, overfishing limits, acceptable biological catch, and annual catch targets we can expect to see for the Atlantic red snapper region. Until the network of captains, anglers, councils, communities, and representatives has had the opportunity to investigate and understand how the effects of one season, no one can say definitively what we should expect.
That can be rough on anglers who want to go ahead and plan their red snapper fishing trip. But when these regulations were put into place, it was to make sure the split of red snapper was secure for future years of fishing trips and the division of red snapper was pretty evenly split between commercial fishing boats and private sports anglers.
The good news is that since the 1980s when we started to try and stabilize the red snapper populations, the news has almost always been positive. There have only been four or so years where a complete no-fishing permanent toss-back rule had to be applied for an entire season, and then it was only for one or two seasons. So if you can’t go chase red snapper this summer, it shouldn’t be long before you can. You may find you have better luck in the Gulf of Mexico than off the Atlantic coast.
Red Snapper in the Gulf of Mexico
Recent studies of the red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico indicate that the rebuilding plan is doing fairly well, although it has been beneath target levels. Biomass has been building since the mid-1990s and the red snapper population was not considered to be overfished in the Gulf as of a 2016 stock assessment.
Managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in tandem with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the red snapper population in the Gulf of Mexico is on the same overall population increase. Because of their comparative distance from the most popular cities for fishing trips, further reaches of the Gulf of Mexico that fall into either international waters or the United States’ federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, red snapper may be more readily available in the Gulf than in the Atlantic Ocean in some years. Always make sure to check both places if you can manage the transport to either coast as easily as the other.
Permits for Red Snapper
Each state and the U.S. federal waters all require their own permit to keep what you catch in-season. If you catch a red snapper by mistake in the off-season, you’ll have to throw it back. Any captain worth his salt and rightfully worried about his license will begrudgingly ask you to toss back the fish no matter how beautiful it is. The permits for keeping red snapper and the limit on how many you’re allowed to take back to shore with you depend on the population of red snapper in either the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. The healthier those populations, the more you’ll be able to catch and keep.
Anglers need a license for any state in whose waters they plan to be with a red snapper in their possession. If you plan to leave from Mississippi and fish off the Florida coast, you need a permit for both states. If you plan to go really far from the coast, you may well need a permit for both the state and the U.S. federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It should be easy enough to work out your planned route and get all the permits you need before you leave so you’ll be able to freely enjoy the salt breezes and reel-ins of your fishing trip the way you want to.
Measuring Quotas and PCL’s
If you want to get around a long wait at the docks or feel like you can better help the red snapper population rebound, consider using the app created by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. It’s called Fish Rules and it’s a fast and easy way to understand saltwater fishing regulations without having to trawl through regulations surrounding other species you aren’t necessarily interested in on a given fishing trip. You can use it with your phone’s GPS or manually select your location to find out about regulations while you’re out on the boat. Despite the annoyance of having to deal with these regulations, they are unfortunately necessary to keep ourselves and the companies that bring red snapper to dinner tables at our homes and restaurants from fishing the species into extinction.
Fortunately, with the Fish Rules app and the help of a local captain who likely keeps up-to-date on all the new regulations and upcoming dates of red snapper season, you can easily get out on the boat and reel in some of these iconic fish for yourself without much interruption.
The first thing people will tell you about red snapper season will probably sound like the very concept of it is meant to limit your fun and dictate how and when you can enjoy yourself fishing on the open ocean. Take a look at the real regulations and how they function and you can understand that the regulations are only meant to allow the fish to continue to thrive so that we can continue to enjoy sport fishing and seafood restaurants. Anglers should definitely pay attention to the start and finish dates of red snapper season, which is unfortunately not possible until early in the calendar year. For a vague timeframe, look at the most recent years. If the populations in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico have remained stable, then red snapper season is likely to start in July and continue until August.
Red snapper are iconic and reeling one in provides a thrill unlike any other fish of its size. They are sensitive to movement so a delicate hand is required to hook them. Their physical attributes and their change in environment as they mature and grow in size make them an interesting species to pursue. Overall, our attempts at rebuilding their populations so that we can continue to enjoy the sportive pursuit of red snapper have been quite successful, ensuring the viability of future fishing trips. Modern tools like the phone app from the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council will help anglers stay within the boundaries of federal and state regulations without detracting from the enjoyment of a red snapper fishing trip. Remember to research your chosen red snapper fishing location before you go to get up-to-date catch limits and season opening and closing dates.
Now that you’ve finished our guide, we hope you have a better understanding of red snapper on the regulations surrounding their catch limit and population rebuilding efforts. In terms of catch limits and where you can catch the fish, we’ve told you everything you need to know about red snapper season. You’ll have to learn yourself how it feels to reel one in by casting out on the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Happy angling!
Bonus tip: Want to see it for yourself? Check out these anglers catching red snapper off the shores of Texas!