Populations of Red Snapper exist almost exclusively in the western Atlantic Ocean ranging from Massachusetts to Brazil, though greater numbers are found between North Carolina and the Florida Keys, as well as throughout the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula. This fish is also popular in the Bahamas and the Caribbean Sea, and especially south of Cuba. These fish typically do not migrate but are known to travel long distances, living in ocean bottom and open-ocean habitats; and preferring to occupy hard structures on the continental shelf at depths from 33 to 300 feet.
The overall color of Red Snappers features variable shades of rosy reds, darkest on top from the upper lip to a solid, wide tail fin with black edges. Dark red hues give way to pink, then grow lighter along the underside. This fish has dark red eyes above a mouth filled with short, needle-like teeth, which are less prominent than most other snappers. Deeper dwelling specimens are usually darker than others living in shallower waters. They have long triangular faces which slope more sharply on top than the bottom. After reaching about 14 inches in length, any dark lateral spot – typical of other snappers – will fade and eventually disappear. These fish have extremely long life spans up to 57 years, but they also grow slowly. They are most commonly landed between one and seven pounds in weight, though examples of 20 pounds and higher are not uncommon. The world record for Red Snapper is 50 pounds, four ounces, caught in the Louisiana waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The spawning season varies with location but is typically between May and October, peaking between July and September off the southeastern United States. Red Snappers hunt along the bottom in deep holes of larger bays and sometimes in fairly shallow water off beaches, at depths of 50-60 feet. In deeper waters, they prefer to congregate around regions with moderate to high relief, like coral and artificial reefs, ledges and caves, and areas with sloping soft bottom. Northern Red Snappers move offshore to avoid cooler, shallow water during winter. Juveniles inhabit shallow waters over sandy or muddy bottoms, feeding on plankton, zooplankton, and shellfish. Adults form large schools of similarly-sized fish and feed on almost anything, but they prefer cephalopods, worms, crab, shrimp, and smaller fish. The chief predators of young Reds are jacks, groupers, sharks, and barracudas, while adult Red Snappers must be wary of turtles and large sea mammals.
A hard fighter, known for its strong, head-shaking tactics, the Red Snapper is a fish greatly prized by anglers. Diners are fans as well, who also relish the delicious flavor of this fish. It is, however, presently quite overfished, and Gulf populations are currently very small, due to overharvesting by commercial fisheries and shrimp fisheries. This fish is so highly prized as a food that there is much debate over some grocery-purchased “red snapper” actually being another type of fish, specifically the Mutton Snapper.