The northern red snapper is found in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the southeastern Atlantic coast of the United States and much less commonly northward as far as Massachusetts.
This species commonly inhabits waters from 30–200 ft, but can be caught as deep as 300 ft on occasion. They stay relatively close to the bottom, and inhabit rocky bottoms, ledges, ridges, and artificial reefs, including offshore oil rigs and shipwrecks. Like most other snappers, northern red snapper are gregarious and form large schools around wrecks and reefs. These schools are usually made up of fish of very similar size.
The preferred habitat of this species changes as it grows and matures due to increased need for cover and changing food habits. Newly hatched red snapper spread out over large areas of open benthic habitat, then move to low-relief habitats, such as oyster beds. As they near one year of age, they move to intermediate-relief habitats as the previous year’s fish move on to high-relief reefs with room for more individuals. Around artificial reefs such as oil platforms, smaller fish spend time in the upper part of the water column while more mature (and larger) adults live in deeper areas. These larger fish do not allow smaller individuals to share this territory. The largest red snapper spread out over open habitats, as well as reefs.
The northern red snapper’s body is very similar in shape to other snappers, such as the mangrove snapper, mutton snapper, lane snapper, and dog snapper. All feature a sloped profile, medium-to-large scales, a spiny dorsal fin, and a laterally compressed body. Northern red snapper have short, sharp, needle-like teeth, but they lack the prominent upper canine teeth found on the mutton, dog, and mangrove snappers.
Northern red snapper are a prized food fish, caught commercially, as well as recreationally. Red snapper is the most commonly caught snapper in the continental USA (almost 50% of the total catch), with similar species being more common elsewhere. They eat almost anything, but prefer small fish and crustaceans. They can be caught on both live and cut bait, and also take artificial lures, but with less vigor. They are commonly caught up to 10 lb and 20 in in length, but fish over 40 lb have been taken.
Recreational fishing for northern red snapper has been popular for a long time, restricted mostly by fishing limits intended to ensure a sustainable population. The first minimum size limit was introduced in 1984, after a 1981 report described quickly declining harvests (both commercial and recreational). From 1985 to 1990, the annual recreational catch of red snapper was about 1.5 million. From 1991 to 2005, the catch was substantially higher, varying from year to year from 2.5 to 4.0 million.
When northern red snapper bite on a line, they tend to be nibblers and pickers, and a soft touch is needed when trying to catch them. Because the older red snapper like structure, anglers use bottom fishing over reefs, wrecks, and oil rigs, and use line and supplies in the 50-lb class. Since the anglers have to both choose the right bait and present it correctly, they tend to use multiple hooked baits. Favorite baits include squid, whole medium-sized fish, and small strips of fish such as amberjack. Although many northern red snapper are caught on the bottom, in some situations the larger fish are caught on heavy jigs (artificial lures), often tipped with a strip of bait or by free lining baits at the proper upper level.
Interest in recreational fishing for northern red snapper, and in the Gulf of Mexico in general, has increased dramatically. From 1995–2003, the number of Louisiana fishing charter guide license holders increased eight-fold.
Since 1990, the total catch limit for northern red snapper has been divided into 49% for recreational fishermen and 51% for commercial. Commercially, they are caught on multiple-hook gear with electric reels. Fishing for red snapper has been a major industry in the Gulf of Mexico, but permit restrictions and changes in the quota system for commercial snapper fishermen in the Gulf have made the fish less commercially available. Researchers estimate the bycatch of young red snapper, especially by shrimp trawlers, is a significant concern.