Red grouper is available year-round with peak catches in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico occurring during the summer and fall. Approximately 70% of the grouper harvested in U.S. waters is red grouper. Groupers are sometimes sold as “sea bass,” “mero” or the Hawaiian name “hapu’u”. The fish is sold fresh and frozen as whole fish, fillets, and steaks. Red grouper flesh is white and lean with a notable lack of bones, and when cooked, remains moist, firm, and has large flakes. Because of its high oil content and dense flakes, red grouper has a high culinary versatility.Red grouper is considered the best tasting grouper with a distinct shellfish finish due to its diet.
Red grouper may be substituted for snappers, especially as U.S. red grouper landings exceed U.S. red snapper landings by roughly 20%. Nearly all red grouper from the U.S. is caught along the Florida Gulf Coast (~97%) and ~99% of total U.S. landings meet a Seafood Watch "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating. The biggest imports of grouper into the U.S. come from Mexico, and although current import statistics don't differentiate groupers by specific species, it is estimated Mexican imports are ~10-15% of the total U.S. landings.
Red grouper grow slowly and can reach up to 50 inches in length and weigh up to 50 pounds. The oldest recorded red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico was 29 years, while the oldest recorded in the South Atlantic was 26 years old. They spawn in shallow waters from February through June, and spawn almost 26 times in a season.
Red grouper are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning they all begin life as a female and eventually some may transform into males. The females reach sexual maturity between ages 4 and 6, and those who turn into males often do so between the ages of 7 and 15. The proportion of males in a population of red grouper increases with age.
Red grouper have large mouths with a slight under-bite, which allows them to eat their prey whole by dilating their gill covers and rapidly inhaling. They are among the top reef predators, controlling some aspects of balance in a reef system. Red grouper eat any convenient prey. Young grouper are preyed upon by jacks, other groupers, sharks, barracudas, and morays; adults are eaten by large sharks and carnivorous marine mammals.
Red grouper are found in the western Atlantic Ocean with ranges extending from Massachusetts through the Gulf of Mexico and south to Brazil. They are common in waters ranging from 10 to 40 feet deep and inhabit shallower marine waters in comparison to other grouper species. Juveniles prefer living near grass beds, rock formations, and reefs in shallow, nearshore waters – moving offshore as they mature and grow in size. Adult red grouper can be found along ledges, crevices, and caverns along limestone reefs. They also frequent areas with live bottom structures such as sponges, corals, and sea squirts. Adults may school or move together in these areas as groups, but only for short distances.
Red grouper act as “marine engineers” in their ecosystem by hollowing out flat-bottomed areas to create their home and attract mates. This process provides habitat to other species such as spiny lobster, black grouper, red porgy, and vermilion snapper.
Science & Management
NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center Reef Fish Research program provides ongoing assessments of red grouper stock and reserve effectiveness. Their grouper habitat utilization investigation looks at seasonal movement patterns in an attempt to improve populations and fishery management. Reef fish habitat assessments compare acoustic mapping results alongside diver-assessed reef fish data to better study fish-habitat correlations.
NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council manage the red grouper fishery along the US Atlantic. Red grouper are managed under the Snapper-Grouper Fishery Management Plan (FMP) along with several other south Atlantic species. Implemented in 1983, the Snapper-Grouper FMP was established to end historic overfishing of red and other grouper species. The plan and its amendments include numerous measures to rebuild current populations. Among those measures are:
Limiting the number of available permits (both transferable and nontransferable) available to commercial fishers
Establishing annual catch limits for both commercial and recreational fishers
Closing the fishery once annual quotas are projected to be met
Commercial and recreational size limits to reduce harvest of immature grouper
Seasonal closures from January to April to protect spawning aggregations
Gear restrictions to protect habitat and reduce bycatch
Eight deep-water marine protected areas closed to fishing and possession of snapper and grouper
According to a 2010 stock assessment, South Atlantic red grouper are not overfished, nor subject to overfishing – though current populations are below target levels. The life history of the species (slow-growing, late-maturing, and long-lived) means that rebuilding plans for some grouper species can take years to accomplish. There is also a lack of basic management data such as quantitative stock assessments and discard rates for many species in the Snapper-Grouper FMP – further limiting rebuilding efforts.
NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council manage the red grouper fishery in the US Gulf of Mexico under the Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan (FMP). US commercial production of grouper is dominated by the Gulf Coast and in 2011, the US Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish fishery landed more than nine times the amount of grouper as compared to the US South Atlantic – largely due to the high landings of red grouper in the gulf.
Established in 1984, the Reef Fish FMP and its amendments were designed to end historic overfishing for shallow water groupers and to rebuild populations. The plan:
Allocates an annual catch limit between commercial (76 percent) and recreational (24 percent) fishers
Restricts certain gear types to reduce bycatch
Sets minimum size restrictions to protect immature red grouper
Establishes year round and seasonal area closures for both commercial and recreational fishers to protect spawning stock and essential fish habitat
The FMP also institutes a permit system in which commercial vessels must have a reef fish permit and an individual fishing quota (IFQ) to harvest red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. The IFQ program allocates shares of the total commercial catch limit amongst individual fishers. Under the program, each fisher owns a share of the quota and can chose to fish it at anytime during the open season. Strict commercial reporting requirements prevent fishers from harvesting more than their individual allocation.
The Reef Fish FMP has been a success in allowing red grouper populations to bounce back from overfishing that had occurred on and off in the Gulf since the 1970s. In 2007 the Gulf of Mexico red grouper fishery was officially considered rebuilt. A 2016 stock assessment, based on 2012 catch data, determined that the species is not overfished nor subject to overfishing.
Red grouper are found from the Mid-Atlantic U.S. states to southern Brazil, with most coming from Cuba and Brazil. They are fairly long-lived and come together to spawn in large numbers, characteristics that make them vulnerable to fishing pressure. In the U.S., red grouper are split into South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stocks. The Gulf of Mexico population in the was declared overfished in 2000 and then was rebuilt to target levels in 2007, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. The South Atlantic stock is no longer overfished, but a 2010 assessment showed it hasn’t been fully rebuilt.
Habitat impacts ( Wild)
Grouper are caught with hook-and-line gear, including handlines and bottom longline gear, as well as some traps, pots and cast nets. Reef fish and sea turtles risk getting caught in this gear, although there are restrictions in place that limit where the gear can be used. Bottom longline gear can have moderate impacts on the seafloor while handlines have low ecosystem impacts, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Grouper fisheries have high impacts on nontarget species, the Monterey Bay Aquarium reported. Bycatch can include sharks, black sea bass, blueline tilefish, smooth dogfish, giant snake eel, golden tilefish, gray triggerfish, greater amberjack, red porgy, red snapper, scamp, speckled hind, vermilion snapper and yellowtail snapper. Loggerhead sea turtles were getting caught in bottom longline gear but that is being addressed with monitoring and a reduction in gear. The red grouper fisheries use dehooking devices and circle hooks to reduce bycatch. Venting tools are also employed to make it easier for reef fish to survive when released.
In the United States, red grouper management measures include permits, annual catch limits, fishing quotas, marine protected areas that are closed to fishing, seasonal closures, gear restrictions, minimum size limits, and data reporting requirements. Management in the Gulf of Mexico received a better score than the South Atlantic from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 2014 Seafood Watch report because that area has observer programs, which are lacking in the Atlantic. Overall the report called U.S. red grouper management moderately effective.