Pink snapper
Pagrus auratus



Pink snapper are one of Western Australia’s best-known and most sought-after fish, prized by commercial and recreational fishers alike and seafood lovers for their excellent taste.

A large distribution…
Pink snapper are found in waters off China, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Taiwan and Australia, where their range extends through the coastal waters of Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria to northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. In WA, pink snapper are found from the warm waters of Karratha in the north right through to the cool waters of the Great Australian Bight. Pink snapper gather in large schools called ‘aggregations’ to spawn. The best known of these seasonal aggregations in WA occur in Shark Bay and in Cockburn Sound off the Perth metropolitan area.

Not actually snapper
Despite their name, pink snapper are actually members of the sea bream family (Sparidae) and are related to species such as black bream (Acanthopagrus butcheri) and tarwhine or silver bream (Rhabdosargus sarba). As with many other Australian species, pink snapper inherited their common name from the northern hemisphere species they most closely resemble.

…but most prefer to stay close to home
The population structure of WA’s oceanic snapper is not well known. Tagging suggests they are capable of trekking long distances as they search for food or join spawning aggregations, but most tend to restrict their movement. Snapper that were tagged in the ocean outside of Shark Bay’s inner gulfs were mostly recaptured within 20 kilometres of their release point. In the inner gulfs of Shark Bay, tagging and genetic studies have shown that there are three genetically distinct populations of pink snapper, with little interbreeding between these populations. A tagging and recapture study of pink snapper in Freycinet Estuary, Shark Bay found that after three years at liberty, the fish were recaptured an average of only 14 kilometres from where they were originally caught and tagged.

Distribution of pink snapper in WA



The tendency of groups of pink snapper to reside in specific areas and have limited home ranges with little intermixing of stock makes them vulnerable to high fishing levels and localised stock depletion.

Serial spawners
Pink snapper take four to five years on average to reach maturity. In the north of WA, this starts to occur when they are about 40 centimetres long. However, new research shows that in the cooler water off the lower west coast, snapper may be 50 to 70 centimetres in length by the time they reach maturity. By the time they reach about six or seven years old, over 90 per cent of pink snapper will have spawned at least once. The spawning season of snapper varies according to location and is linked to the full moon and the new moon. The more northerly stocks, such as those in Shark Bay, spawn during winter following a decrease in water temperature. Further south, in the cooler water off Perth and in Cockburn Sound, snapper aggregate for spawning in late spring and early summer (October to December), following an increase in water temperature. During the 12 to 15 week breeding season, pink snapper form spawning aggregations, which can be made up of thousands of fish and are found in the same locations each year – so they are easily located and targeted by fishers. Such large numbers of fish aggregating in a location can give the impression that stocks are healthy, however these fish have been drawn from a wide area. During spawning, eggs and sperm are released into the water and fertilisation occurs externally. Males that produce the biggest quantity of sperm tend to fertilise more eggs, leading to the evolution of particularly large gonads in these fish.

Pigments called ‘astaxanthins’ probably give snapper their pink colour – similar to pink flamingos. In Japan, where they are farmed, the fish are fed krill oil to ensure the presence of these pigments.

Pink snapper are ‘demersal’, or bottom-dwelling fish, but also spend some of their lives in the mid- to upper water levels. They are usually found in depths down to 200 metres along the continental shelf and in large bays. Juveniles are common in sheltered bays, estuaries and inshore waters, which are important nursery areas for pink snapper. They feed on small fish, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, jellyfish, echinoderms (such as sea stars and sea urchins) and algae. Although they are near the top of the marine food web, they may become prey to bigger species such as large estuary cod, dolphins and sharks. Pink snapper are slow-growing and long-lived – they can live to the ripe old age of 30 years or more. This long life increases each snapper’s chance of reproducing successfully since in some years natural variations in water temperature or food availability will reduce spawning success. However their slow growth rate also makes them less able to recover from overfishing and rapid environmental change. In the past, pink snapper have been caught weighing almost 20 kilograms and measuring over a metre long. These days it is rare to see pink snapper weighing more than 10 kilograms.

Female pink snapper release millions of eggs in a series of batches over several weeks as a way to increase their chance of reproductive success. As they grow, larger females produce many more eggs each year and become an increasingly valuable part of the breeding stock. Research has shown that while a four-year-old female will release 150,000 eggs in a single spawning, an older female will release 300,000 to 400,000 eggs, which add up to millions of eggs over the season. However, most of the eggs and larvae will not survive to become mature fish.

Snapper in large spawning aggregations sometime become so voracious they will bite a bare fishhook. It is thought they get so hungry because they use up energy to produce eggs and sperm and soon eat up food sources at the aggregation site. The lead sinker in this photograph is covered in bite marks from aggregating Shark Bay snapper and shows how easy it is for fishers to catch large numbers of pink snapper at these times. Perhaps these fish really do deserve to be called snappers!

Drifting with the currents
Spawning typically occurs in near-shore bays where winds and currents keep the eggs within these areas, rather than drifting hundreds of kilometres as they would if spawned in the open ocean. About a day and half after fertilisation, the eggs hatch into tadpole-like larvae. The larvae cannot swim well so, like the eggs, they drift with the winds and currents. They stay near the ocean bottom in the daytime and migrate up through the water column at night. During the following three weeks, the larvae transform into recognisable juvenile snapper. At this stage, they settle in large schools in flat muddy or sandy areas near the ocean bottom. When they are about one-and-a-half years’ old and between 15 and 18 centimetres long, the young snapper move into the reefy margins of marine bays, estuaries and near-shore reefs.

Boom or bust?
Water temperature, salinity and the availability of food play a major role in spawning and the survival of pink snapper eggs, larvae and juveniles, as well as the growth rates of older fish. Juvenile pink snapper, like many species of scalefish, have a very high natural ‘mortality’ – in fact, more than 90 per cent die of natural causes in the first few weeks or months. Natural mortality declines as the fish get older. ‘Recruitment’ for pink snapper depends on favourable environmental conditions. In most years, it is probable that there will be low recruitment in that very few young fish will survive (‘bust’ years). In other years, when environmental conditions are just right, the survival rate will be much higher (‘boom’ years). Pink snapper may have favourable conditions, resulting in successful recruitment, only once or twice a decade. This can lead to the snapper population being dominated by a small number of ‘year classes’ – that is, fish that were born in the same year. A fish population that has this sort of ‘age structure’ is highly vulnerable to sustained overfishing.

A favourite of fishers
Pink snapper supports commercial fisheries around Australia and is a highly popular species for recreational anglers. Management of fisheries seeks to control the overall catch and protect fish breeding populations and important habitats. Most of the WA pink snapper commercial catch is taken from the oceanic stock of pink snapper off Shark Bay, where the amount that licensed fishers are allowed to catch is managed through quotas and controls on gear. However, despite being WA’s biggest commercial pink snapper fishery, Shark Bay produces relatively few of these fish on a global scale - for example, the Shark Bay catch is just a fraction of New Zealand’s annual pink snapper catch. The recreational fishery is managed using daily bag, possession, size and gear limits, as well as closed seasons to protect spawning aggregatons. Quota tags are used for some of the pink snapper stock within the inner gulfs of Shark Bay.

Pink snapper are a symbol of happiness and good fortune in Japan. High quality Japanese and WA wildcaught pink snapper are sought for weddings and other ceremonial occasions, and fetch much better prices than Japanese cultured snapper.

Fishy science
Building an accurate model of the populations of this prized fish plays a vital part in managing the fishery. Fisheries research scientists collect samples of pink snapper of various sizes, which are used to determine how fast they grow and how old they are when they reach a certain size.

Abundance Number of fish in a stock or population Age structure The number of fish of different ages within a population Aggregation Large gathering of fish, usually occuring during spawning Catch rate The amount of fish caught in relation to fishing effort Demersal Bottom-dwelling, or living near the sea bed Gonads Organs producing eggs or sperm Hyperostosis Above-normal bone growth Maturity Stage at which a fish can reproduce or breed Mortality Frequency of death Otolith Fish ear bone Recruitment Addition of fish to a stock or population as a result of reproduction, migration or the growth of juveniles to legal size. Scalefish Fish that have scales, unlike sharks and rays that have skin instead of scales. Year class (also called age class) Fish within a stock or population that were spawned in the same season

Researchers can determine the age of a fish by studying the ‘otoliths’ or ear bones and thousands of these small bony structures are examined every year. The otoliths, used by fish to balance and hear underwater, lay down growth rings every year similar to tree trunks. Researchers count the growth rings to build a picture of the abundance of each age class in the population and the health of the fishery. The number of fish in each age class or year of birth, when described across the lifespan of the species, provides the age structure. Looking at the age structure over several years, researchers can see the impact of successful recruitment and the effect of fishing.

Department of Fisheries, Western Australia: www.fish.wa.gov.au Federal Department of Environment and Water Resources: www.environment.gov.au Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation: www.csiro.gov.au Australian Museum: www.amonline.net.au/fishes Fisheries Research and Development Corporation: www.frdc.com.au/species Australian Fisheries Management Authority: www.afma.gov.au United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation: www.fao.org Western Australian Fishing Industry Council: www.wafic.org.au
Fish illustrations © R.Swainston/www.anima.net.au

Hutchins, B. & Swainston, R. 1986. Sea Fishes of Southern Australia. Hutchins, B & Thompson, M. 1995. The Marine and Estuarine Fishes of South-western Australia. A Field Guide for Anglers and Divers. Western Australian Museum. Yearsley, G.K., Last, P.R. & Ward, R.D. 1999. Australian Seafood Handbook, an identification guide to domestic species. CSIRO Marine Research.

As they grow, all pink snapper develop bony humps on the forehead. This is called ‘hyperostosis’, or above-normal bone growth. Older males also grow fleshy bumps on the snout and it is thought that the males use these bumps to nudge females at breeding time, as if to stimulate the release of eggs.

This fact sheet is the fifth (No. 5, first revision) in a Department of Fisheries series. ISSN 1834-9382

Visit the Department of Fisheries website at: www.fish.wa.gov.au or contact:

3rd Floor, The Atrium, 168 St George’s Terrace, Perth, 6000 Ph: (08) 9482 7333 Fax: (08) 9482 7389 e-mail: headoffice@fish.wa.gov.au


CR400_02 SEP 2009

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