Cubera Snapper

l_cyanopterusPhoto: Seapics


Lutjanus cyanopterus

Description and Distribution

Cubera snapper is a subtropical species distributed across the western Atlantic, Nova Scotia in Canada and Bermuda, to the mouth of the Amazon, Brazil. It also rarely appears in the north of Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. L. cyanopterus is a popular commercial fish, however, it is known for being ciguatoxic (people are sometimes poisoned by consumption of ciguatoxic fish). It has an elongated and slender body with a long pectoral fin, a continuous dorsal fin and a fairly truncate-shaped caudal fin. Its mouth has thick lips and large teeth. The maximum reported size is 160 cm (TL) and 57 kg. It is the, largest of all lutjanidsin the western Atlantic (1,6,9,14).

Preferred Habitat

The species is reef-associated, living inshore or nearshore, over rocky ledges and overhangs. It normally occurs at depths ranging from 18 to 55 m. The young fish typically inhabit inshore mangrove areas and seagrass beds that offer protection from predators. Small cubera snappers are also known to enter estuaries, and tidal reaches of streams and freshwater canals (1,6,12).


l_cyanopterus_rangeSource: SCRFA
The above diagram shows the range of the cubera snapper (highlighted in green)
and reported spawning aggregation sites (highlighted in red)


Life History

L. cyanopterus is a large snapper coloured gray or dark brown with pale to dark gray sides. Juveniles have a faintly barred pattern on either side that fades away when age. Cubera snappers commonly weigh around 18 kg and reach lengths of 90 cm (TL); larger fish are not commonly taken. The species reaches sexual maturity at about 65 cm (TL). It is aggressive and carnivorous, feeding mainly on fishes, shrimps and crabs. The strong canines allow mature cubera snapper to feed on large crustaceans including lobsters and crabs. The species is oviparous, releasing pelagic eggs into offshore waters at spawning aggregation sites. It is a wary fish that is not easily approached underwater by divers and has numerous predators including sharks, barracuda, grouper, moray eels and other snapper species (4,6,8,12,13,15).


Spawning Aggregations

L. cyanopterus aggregates to spawn from May to September in the waters of the Caribbean during full-moon. In Belize, it aggregates during March to September within a confined area and consistent time (near sunset). During peak season and during the full moon from April to July between 4000 and 10000 fish aggregate to spawn. The aggregations normally take place on outer reef slopes, reef promontories and sandy drop-off areas of the shelf edge. In Puerto Rico, cubera snapper spawn on deep reefs (35-40m). The snapper has also been seen to aggregate to spawn on artificial habitat in the United States. During spawning, hundreds to thousands of individuals may aggregate over deep areas. The eggs hatch within a day of fertilization, producing pelagic larvae that are dispersed by the currents.  Whale sharks feed on freshly released cubera snapper spawn in waters off Belize in Central America. The cubera snapper is also known to spawn with other snapper species (i.e. dog snapper [L. Jocu], gray snapper [L. griseus], sharing both locations and peak spawning times (2,3,5,8,9,10,15).


l_cyanopterus_perrinePhoto: Seapics
Cubera snappers in a spawning aggregation


L. cyanopterus is commercially fished and is also targeted as gamefish. It is reported that fishers in the Caribbean fish the species during spawning aggregations, usually with hook and line and set nets. In Belize, the total harvest of cubera snapper is about 125 tonnes annually, taken primarily during season of spawning aggregations from April to May. In Cuba, ‘cubera snapper' refers to both L. cyanopterus and L. griseus in fisheries statistics and by fishers. L. griseus are more commonly caught (constituting up to 95% of the reported figure) than L. cyanopterus. The accumulated landings (of the two species) increased in the 1970s as a result of greater fishing effort and efficiency. However, in the late 1980s the catches declined markedly to below 600 tonnes per year (half the original production). The only available FAO statistics show that around 350 tonnes per year of cubera snappers are caught in Mexico in 2005-2007. There have been reports of ciguatoxic poisoning with some specimen of cubera snapper in the region (3,6,11).


No information. There is no published research or commercial mariculture of the species.


In Cuba, L. cyanopterus has been overexploited as a result of intense fishing effort on aggregations. More than 40% of the annual catch was obtained in July-August, during peak spawning times at aggregation sites and during its migration to the spawning sites. In Belize, cubera snapper is fished during aggregation times at night (2,3).
As juveniles inhabit vegetated habitats and subadults inhabit mangroves before moving offshore to deeper areas as they grow larger, the condition of these habitats is important. Conservation of these habitats should be ensured for a viable population of the species (12).

Conservation & Management

Being one of the important commercial and recreational fishes of the Caribbean, L. cyanopterus has been fished for decades. It is, however, currently over-exploited with declining populations in a number of locations. Cubera snapper is particularly vulnerable to overfishing during spawning in its spawning aggregations. The species is considered "vulnerable" by the IUCN Red List (assessed in 1996) but the assessment needs to be updated (6,8).

Spawning aggregations of commercially important reef fishes, including cubera snapper, have been targeted by fishers and as a result are often severely depleted and in some cases extirpated. Conservation and management efforts for cubera snapper will need to include protection of spawning aggregations because 1) many sites are over-exploited, and 2) dog and gray snappers share the sites and time of spawning aggregations. A fishing closure at cubera snapper spawning aggregation sites has been in place for several years in Cuba. However, the measure does not appear to have been sufficiently or effectively enforced for the recovery of the stocks. It is suggested that, besides protection of spawning aggregation sites, marine-protected areas with multi-use zoning and other fishery management measures, such as enforcing minimum sizes, may be needed (2,15).

Belize's most important cubera snapper aggregation site at Gladden Spit is a multi-species spawning aggregation site. The site is largely protected from illegal fishing. It is suggested that the site should form an important component of a marine reserve network. The Government of Belize has initiated such a network by closing some multi-species spawning aggregation sites at reef promontories in 2003 (7,8).
In Puerto Rico, where fishing of spawning aggregations is known, permanent year-round closures of the relevant sites is suggested to protect the habitat from destructive fishing gear and anchor. The species is partially self-protected because of the presence of ciguatoxins in large fish which make it a less desirable fish (11).


1. Allen, G.R. (1985) Snappers of the World. An Annotated and Illustrated Catalogue of Lutjanid Species known to Date. FAO Species Catalogue. Vol. 6. FAO. Rome. Pp. 208, Pl. I-XXVII.
2. Claro R. & Lindeman K.C. (2003) Spawning aggregation sites of snapper and grouper species (Lutjanidae and Serranidae) on the insular shelf of Cuba, Gulf and Caribbean Research 14(2):91-106
3. Claro R. et al. (2001) Ecology of the marine fishes of Cuba. Smithsonian Institution. 253p.
4. Diaz-Ruiz, S. et al (1996) Seasonal patterns of distribution and abundance of snappers in the Mexican Caribbean. In Biology, fisheries and culture of tropical groupers and snapper pp. 43-50 [ICLARM conf proc no.48]
5. Domeier, M.L. & Colin P.L. (1997) Tropical reef fish aggregations: defined and reviewed. Bulletin of Marine Science. 60(3):698-726
6. Fishbase (2009)
7. Government of Belize (2003) Statutory Instrument No. 161 of 2003. Fisheries (Spawning Aggregation Site Reserves) Order, 2003. Belize: Government of Belize.
8. Heyman, W.D. et al (2005) Spawning aggregations of Lutjanus cyanopterus on the Belize Barrier Reef over a 6 year period. Journal of Fish Biology 67: 83-101
9. Huntsman, G. (1996) Lutjanus cyanopterus. In: IUCN 2009. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.1.
10. Kadison E. et al (2006) Temporal and spatial dynamics of Lutjanus cyanopterus (Pisces: Lutjanidae) and L. jocu spawning aggregations in the United States Virgin Islands. International Journal of Tropical Biology and Conservation 54(3): 69-78
11. Lindeman K.C. et al (2000) Developmental patterns within a multispecies reef fishery: management applications for essential fish habitats and protected areas. Bulletin of Marine Science 66(3): 929-956
12. Lindeman, K.C. & DeMaria, D. (2005) Juveniles of the Caribbean's largest coral reef snapper do not use reefs. Coral Reefs 24: 359
13. Martinez-Andrade F. (2003). A comparison of life histories and ecological aspects among snappers (Pisces: Lutjanidae)
14. Murray R. and Bester C. (2009) Cubera snapper biological profile.
15. Paris, C.B. et al (2005) Larval transport pathways from Cuban snapper (Lutjanidae) spawning aggregations based on biophysical modeling. Marine Ecology Progress Series 296: 93-106