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October 26, 2001

Snapper Ages

As a snapper gets older, its growth may slow down but it's reproductivity increases.

Q: I can understand high minimum-legal-size regulations for big snappers like cuberas and muttons but why should small snappers such as mangroves also have high size minimums? Eighteen or 20 inches is big for a mangrove, but some people are saying [the minimum size] should be 24 inches. I never see mangroves that size and think 12 inches is big enough for these fish. Can you tell me what the age difference is between a mangrove snapper 12 inches, 18 inches and 24 inches? - Charles LaRue, Mobile, Alabama

A: There's more difference than you might think. Researchers at the National Marine Fisheries Service recently measured gray (mangrove) snappers caught between Fort Pierce, Florida and Grand Isle, Louisiana and determined their ages by counting the rings in their otoliths (ear bones). They found that mangrove snappers live 20 years or more - one they examined was 25 years old.
Based on their measurements, a mangrove snapper can reach 12 inches in two to three years, 18 inches in four to six years, and a 24-inch mangrove may be 12 to 20 years old. These fish grow very quickly the first six to seven years of their lives, then growth slows down.
Gray snapper are common in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic. Unlike most other snappers, they live in inshore passes, bays, and adjoining lakes - especially small fish between 8 and 14 inches - so they are both recreationally and commercially important.
High minimum-size regulations protect the population's reproductive capacity, since an older, mature female can produce hundreds of times more eggs than a younger female that puts all its energy into growing. In other words, it's just as important to protect the big fish as the small fish.