The term “red snapper” is used to refer collectively to fish in the Lutjanus genus, although many people think specifically of L. campechanus, a prized food fish, when they hear “red snapper.” This fish has dense white flesh with a sweet, slightly nutty flavor which makes it very popular with human diners, and unfortunately this has led to overfishing issues in red snapper fisheries.
Like other snappers, the red snapper has a spiny dorsal fin, and needle-like teeth. These fish are also laterally compressed, which means that their bodies appear slightly squashed. They are tropical to subtropical fish, preferring the reef environment for the ample prey it provides. As the name suggests, these fish have reddish bodies which are classically darker on top, fading to a creamy color near the belly.
These fish are gregarious, generally living in large schools. This can be an advantage for fishermen, because they can net a big group of fish at once, but it also increases the risk of bycatch, such as snapper which are too small for sale, or unwanted fish species. This leads to waste in the fishery, further destabilizing the fish population.
Because of the demand for true red snapper, many unscrupulous companies sell white fish labeled as “red snapper” regardless of the species. This has led to increasing use of the term for any white-fleshed fish, leading some people to think of it as an inferior food fish. In fact, true red snapper has a very distinctive flavor and a wide variety of uses, and it can be quite costly.
Several studies on fish offered for sale in the United States have shown that a great deal of mislabeling occurs in fish markets. Usually this is not the responsibility of the proprietor; many fish markets buy fish already sectioned and filleted, making it hard to identify the original species. Consumers should try to purchase snapper with the skin on, if possible, since the distinctive red skin makes true identification much easier.
Due to overfishing concerns, purchasing red snapper at all may not be advisable. Other white fish such as mahi-mahi are a better choice, and they offer many of the traits which make snapper so desirable, like firm flesh which is suitable for grilling. Decreased demand for the fish may allow fisheries to recover, and it would promote honesty in labeling, as well.