Nutrient Loading Increases Red Snapper Production in the Gulf of Mexico

Joshua M. Courtney, Amy C. Courtney, Michael W. Courtney


A large, annually recurring region of hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico has been attributed to water stratification and nutrient loading of nitrogen and phosphorus delivered by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. This nutrient loading increased nearly 300% since 1950, primarily due to increased use of agricultural fertilizers. Over this same time period, the red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) population in the Gulf of Mexico has shifted strongly from being dominated by the eastern Gulf of Mexico to being dominated by the northern and western Gulf of Mexico, with the bulk of the current population in the same regions with significant nutrient loading from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers and in or near areas with development of mid-summer hypoxic zones. The population decline of red snapper in the eastern Gulf is almost certainly attributable to overfishing, but the cause of the population increase in the northern and western Gulf is subject to broad debate, with the impact of artificial reefs (primarily oil platforms which have incr­eased greatly since the 1960s) being the most contentious point. Nutrient loading has been shown to positively impact secondary production of fish in many marine systems. The present paper offers the hypothesis that increased nutrient loading has contributed significantly to increased red snapper population in the northern and western Gulf of Mexico. Nutrient loading may be working in synergy with the abundant oil platforms both increasing primary production and providing structure encouraging red snapper to feed throughout the water column.



Red snapper, Gulf of Mexico, hypoxia, nutrient loading, eutrophication, dead zones


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