The Gulf of Mexico’s “Comeback Kid”

_MG_1011If you’re standing at a seafood counter, a Gulf of Mexico red snapper is hard to miss. Though it is available in fillets, red snapper is often often sold whole, so their bright red/pink metallic skin skin jumps out at you through the glass.

And if you’re looking for local and sustainable seafood, red snapper is hard to beat. It’s one of the Gulf’s healthiest fisheries and perhaps the country’s greatest comeback story.

Near total collapse less than 15 years ago, the commercial red snapper fishery imposed upon itself a whole new management system that meant more predictability for fishermen and seafood businesses, better availability for customers and, most importantly, a path to sustainability for this iconic species.

In the last decade, the snapper stock has rebounded in historic fashion.

Bubba Cochrane has been fishing for red snapper his whole life and now owns a commercial fishing business in Galveston, Texas.

“The fishery’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen it,” Cochrane said. “And that’s pretty incredible, considering that we thought it was about to die not too long ago.”

Under the old management system, fishermen raced to catch all the snapper they could during the government mandated seasons, which some years lasted only a few days. That resulted in a lot of dangerous fishing, wasted fish and huge market swings for customers. Sometimes fresh Gulf snapper was available only a few weeks a year.

The new approach allows fishermen to pace themselves throughout the year, putting less stress on the stock and injecting some predictability into the market. Now, Gulf red snapper are more plentiful than ever, and customers can find fresh snapper at the seafood counter or on the menu nearly year-round.

If you ask Cochrane how to prepare fresh Gulf red snapper, he’ll grin slightly and paraphrase a scene from Forrest Gump.

“You can sauté it, grill it, barbecue it, fry it, broil it, bake it. Heck, you can stick it in the microwave with some butter and it will taste awesome,” he said. “It’s not only one of the tastiest fish in the Gulf, but it’s also one of the simplest to prepare. I don’t think you can mess it up.”

It is also one of the Gulf’s “meatiest” fish. “It has a great yield,” Cochrane said. “You can feed 7 people on one fish. When people buy a whole snapper, they get all fish. There’s tons of meat per fish.”

Cochrane is one of a growing number of commercial fishermen who participate in Gulf Wild, a voluntary program that ensures that seafood displaying the Gulf Wild mark was harvested by U.S. fishermen who follow strict conservation standards. Each Gulf Wild snapper at a seafood counter has a tracking number so customers can confirm where, when and by whom each fish was caught.

“Gulf Wild is like the farmers market for the ocean,” Cochrane said. “If I’m going to buy something, I want to know that it’s helping and not hurting things. Gulf Wild helps people make better choices.”

The success of the new management system and programs like Gulf Wild are clear and dramatic. And Cochrane thinks it’s a success that every customer and shopper can share.

“We used to wonder how much longer the fishery could survive,” Cochrane said. “I certainly didn’t think my kids would be able to do this for a living. But we’re on a great path now. And if we stay on it, this fishery will last forever.”

So eat up, and know that buying fresh Gulf of Mexico red snapper isn’t just a tasty choice, it’s a sustainable one.

A highly versatile, firm-fleshed fish, red snapper has a mild nutty flavor. Often mis-labeled, do your best to make sure you are buying Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper by looking for traceability programs like Gulf Wild. When buying the fish whole, you want to see deep red fins, pinkish-silver bellies, and red gills that look healthy. For fillets, choose skin-on, as skin-off fillets might not be genuine red snapper. The white flesh of a red snapper should be moist and reflective. 
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