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Plenty of red snapper for season opening June 1

Red snapper count in Gulf of Mexico three times higher than expected

Red snapper season begins June 1 on the heels of a study that triples the estimated population of the popular fish. A recent study by the Texas A&M University Harte Research Institute in Corpus Christi revealed that the U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico are home to 110 million red snapper rather than the previously estimated population of 36 million — numbers that could change how the Gulf fishery is managed by federal and state officials.

The Great Red Snapper Count, which began in 2017, included more than 80 scientists from 12 institutions of higher learning along with help from state and federal agencies. The count was led by Greg Stunz, the Harte Research Institute’s chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health and director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation.

The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium administered the project through a competitive grant process, awarding $9.5 million in federal funds to the research team. Combined with matching institutional funds, the project totaled $12 million and resulted in a 300-page published report.

“A team led by the top fishery scientists from around the Gulf and beyond have been tirelessly working and have successfully determined the total number of red snapper in the region,” Stunz said, adding that the project is unprecedented in scope, coverage, and methodologies.

“We are honored that this information will greatly expand our knowledge base of red snapper and are looking forward to rapid integration into management,” Stunz continued.

As one of the most popular fish species in the United States, red snapper became overfished over the several decades, leading to government bag and size limits and shortened seasons in federal waters. Each season’s length is determined by catches reported and population estimates.

The Great Red Snapper Count shed light on a “cryptic biomass” of red snapper in the Gulf. It discovered an unmapped habitat on the bottom of the Gulf that harbors a high number of red snapper, far more than anticipated.

To count this popular fish species spread out over thousands of square miles of open ocean, researchers recorded thousands hours of video, conducted hydroacoustic surveys, and logged hundreds of boat hours on traditional sampling, tagging, and other fieldwork.

They also collaborated with anglers in a popular high-reward tagging program, where tagged snapper were reported for a cash prize. Surprisingly, 30 percent of the tagged fish were ultimately returned, proving a high amount of stakeholder involvement in the project and demonstrating that catch-and-release can be a viable management tool in the industry, Stunz said.

Senior Executive Director at the Harte Research Institute Dr. David Yoskowitz said the Great Red Snapper Count exemplifies what the institute is all about.

“Bringing the science forward to directly inform management decisions of our natural resources is critical,” he said. “This is one of the most important fisheries management issues in the region right now.”

According to Stunz, both the work and the results have already inspired similar studies for greater amberjack and red snapper in the southeast region of the country. Federal fisheries officials must now review the data to determine how to integrate it into future management decisions.

“This is just the beginning of future assessment meetings and activities with managing agencies, Scientific and Statistical Committees, the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center, and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council,” Stunz said. “These activities will facilitate direct incorporation of these data into the management process.”

When the 2021 red snapper season opens June 1, size and bag limits will remain the same from 2020. Regulations allow for two fish per person daily with a 16-inch minimum size limit in federal waters. State waters allow for four fish per person daily with a 15-inch minimum. Federal waters begin 9 nautical miles from shore.

Red snapper caught in federal waters will be part of the state bag limit of four fish. While fishing in federal waters, no more than two red snapper may be in your possession and no more than four when fishing state waters.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department suggests anglers download the iSnapper app on smartphones to report their red snapper landings and catch counts.

For more about the Great Red Snapper Count, including project and partner information, fact sheets, videos, and to download a copy of the report, visit SnapperCount.org.

For more information on fishing regulations, visit tpwd.texas.gov and gulfcouncil.org.

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