October 1, 2017 Edition

I’ve got friends in wet places …

By Escambia County Marine Resources Manager Robert Turpin

Robert Turpin Robert Turpin Our most famous local species of reef fish (fish that are primarily found at natural and artificial reefs) is the red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus). Red snapper holds the trifecta of attributes justifying its fame: strong-fighting, great-tasting and good-looking.

An iconic species, red snapper is also the “posterchild” in the struggle between anglers and fisheries managers.

Originally called the “Pensacola Red Snapper,” red snapper were harvested locally, and much of the entire Gulf of Mexico harvests were landed at the seafood docks in Pensacola. Pensacola was a natural deep-water port and was close to the northeastern Gulf of Mexico natural reefs. Pensacola also had railroad facilities, which provided access to additional markets for red snapper.

The original red snapper fishery was primarily a commercial fishery, which started in the mid 19th century. The first recorded account of red snapper catch was made by Capt. James Keeny in the early 1840s. While sailing to New Orleans with a load of pompano, redfish and sheepshead, Captain Keeny’s vessel was becalmed.

The ship’s cook threw food scraps overboard and was surprised when red snapper came to the surface to feed on the scraps. The crew quickly caught about 200 red snapper, which sold “like hot-cakes” in New Orleans.

In those days, Gulf of Mexico charts contained only general seafloor detail. Rock ledges, out-croppings and other natural reefs were not yet discovered. Ships’ crews used sounding lines with lead weights to measure water depths. Some weights were modified with holes or depressions in the bottom of the weight and “armed” with tallow to collect a sample of the seafloor material. Pieces of rock, shell or coral indicated the presence of reefs. Fishermen often added a baited hook to their sounding lines and quickly discovered the association of red snapper and other reef fish with reef formations.

One of the largest natural reef formations close to Pensacola is the “29- Edge,” Located south of Pensacola Pass, the Edge is a rock ledge that drops from 29 fathoms (174 feet) to more than 33 fathoms. This 20-foot vertical ledge runs northeast and southwest for miles and produced large catches of red snapper.

In addition to sounding lines, the only other navigation tools available at the time were compass, watch and sextant. Skilled captains sailed out of Pensacola to catch commercial quantities of red snapper at reefs off the coast of Mobile, Ala., to St. George, Fla.

Prior to the availability of ice, fishing vessels called “snapper smacks” were modified with openings in the hull for water exchange to keep the red snapper alive for the entire voyage. Pensacola’s railroad connections allowed development of markets for red snapper from New Orleans to New York.

By the 1880s, red snapper were depleted on the local fishing grounds. Fishermen sought red snapper catches farther south along the west coast of Florida and westward to Texas. The availability of ice allowed ships to travel farther distances on longer voyages to new fishing grounds off the Dry Tortugas and Campeche, Mexico. Ice and refrigeration further expanded markets for red snapper and other seafood.

The advent of SONAR during World War II gave fishermen greater ability to locate reefs. Economic prosperity after World War II stimulated an increase in recreational fishing, and recreational anglers also targeted red snapper. LORAN navigation system provided fishermen the ability to chart the reef locations and return to the same reefs again and again. Charterboat captains began supplementing natural reefs with “artificial” reefs, by sinking old boats, barges and other materials.

Starting in the 1970s, artificial reefs for public use were deployed in the Gulf of Mexico off Escambia County and other coastal communities. Liberty Ships, barges, airplanes and concrete rubble were deployed close to Pensacola Pass and close enough to shore to provide access by recreational anglers aboard smaller recreational boats.

GPS replaced LORAN, providing precision navigation to all anglers. By the 1990s, populations of red snapper and other reef fish species declined to levels which prompted federal and state fisheries managers to establish catch limits for commercial and recreational fishing sectors. Rebuilding plans were developed for red snapper and other over-fished stocks.

In addition to implementation of fishing regulations, the continued deployment of additional artificial reefs has increased the quantity of reef fish habitat. Thousands of offshore oil rigs, production platforms and pipelines have also increased the amount of habitat for red snapper and other marine life.

The result of these and other factors has been a tremendous rebound in red snapper abundance. In the last decade, red snapper catches regularly include large “trophy” fish weighing more than 20 pounds. Many anglers believe the red snapper population has recovered sufficiently to justify an increase in the recreational harvest. In 2017, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service increased the number of allowable days for recreational red snapper harvest.

The challenge is maximizing catches of this iconic species and other species for today’s anglers and for the anglers of tomorrow.

Red Snapper Facts

Scientific name: Lutjanus campechanus Lifespan: 50 years Maximum size:
than 36 inches and 50 pounds Age at reproductive maturity:
3 years Spawning season: summer-early autumn Diet:
changes (with age) from crustaceans to fishes to pelagic zooplankton Total Allowable (Gulf of Mexico) Catch for 2017: 13.74 million pounds Food quality: excellent Red snapper represents one of the most abundant predatory fish species at local reefs. As adults, red snapper are susceptible to predation by sharks, barracuda and dolphins. Large grouper may also feed on the smallest red snappers on the reefs. However, red snapper have a life-history strategy that minimizes susceptibility to predation: juvenile red snapper recruit to reefs at larger sizes (greater than 6-12 inches) than most other fishes.

2017-10-01 / Features

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