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S.C. Sea Grant Awards Nearly $1.5M for “Great Red Snapper Count” in the South Atlantic

Mar 25, 2021 | News

A team of university researchers, government scientists and a business specializing in ecological modeling was selected through a competitive review process organized by the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium to conduct research to estimate the number of red snapper in U.S. South Atlantic waters from North Carolina to south Florida.

“The selected project team will answer important questions about red snapper and complement research supported previously by Sea Grant in the Gulf of Mexico,” said National Sea Grant Program Director Jonathan Pennock, Ph.D. “Sea Grant’s role as a conveyor and connector of external, collaborative research with stakeholder needs is an important one, and our red snapper work is a demonstration of the Sea Grant model at work.”

Red snapper fish shoaling.

Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) is a highly sought commercial and recreational reef fish whose annual harvest levels are dependent on fishery management decisions based on stock assessments. Population estimates suggest the biomass of red snapper has been depleted since the 1970s, which has resulted in low harvest levels and short fishing seasons in the South Atlantic. The research team led by Will Patterson, Ph.D., a professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences at the University of Florida, will conduct a 30-month study to estimate the size of the red snapper population independent of the current stock assessment, which will benefit future assessments and management of the species in the South Atlantic region.

“We are excited to get this work underway so that we can better understand the number and location of red snapper in the South Atlantic,” said Susan Lovelace, Ph.D., executive director of the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium. “A steering committee comprised of fisheries science and policy experts and Sea Grant engagement and outreach staff will be working with the research team on the final report and findings.”

“We appreciate these additional resources being made available for South Atlantic red snapper and hope that the results of the study will improve our understanding of the population,” said Carolyn Belcher, Ph.D., a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and a steering committee member for this research project.

The research team will estimate the distribution and population density of red snapper using remotely operated vehicle (ROV) transects in habitats not currently sampled by the annual Southeast Reef Fish Survey (SERFS) program, as well as fish traps and video camera data from sites within the SERFS sampling area. They also will conduct genetic close-kin mark-recapture using fin clip tissue samples to estimate red snapper population size, and analyze otoliths, or ear bones, to determine red snapper age. Tissue samples will be collected from SERFS trap catches and from commercial and recreational fishery landings off northeast Florida and North Carolina. In addition, the team will develop a model to produce a second estimate of the red snapper population based on trap-camera and ROV survey data. Red snapper begin reproducing at age two, so two-year old and older fish will be the targets of the study.

Red snapper fish held in hand.

Photo by Harte Research Institute.

“Red snapper is an iconic reef fish species in the U.S. Atlantic and we have assembled an accomplished team from the University of Florida, North Carolina State University, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and NOAA Fisheries to estimate red snapper population size with two different approaches,” said Will Patterson, Ph.D. “We look forward to working with commercial and recreational fishers on this important research, as well as with regional Sea Grant extension and outreach staff to convey study progress and results to stakeholders and other folks interested in the work we are doing.”

“This absolute abundance research should be a welcome addition to any future modeling for the red snapper fishery,” said Mark Marhefka, a commercial fisherman and steering committee member.​