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Lab to play key role in snapper population

OCEAN SPRINGS — A 5,260-square-foot building under construction on the University of Southern Mississippi’s Cedar Point site is designed to play a vital role in red snapper stock enhancement.

Red snapper is considered one of the most valuable species in the Gulf of Mexico and is also labeled as “overfished” by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Jason Lemus, research associate and hatchery manager at Cedar Point, which is part of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, said that once the building is completed in 2011, it will be unique in the nation in red snapper development.

One key is the tiny creature called copepods, which infant snapper eat, he said.

“These critters are key to red snapper aquaculture,” Lemus said. “This is what separates our program from anybody else in the states. We are the only program that grows copepods in numbers sufficient to culture red snapper. So, we should all feel proud Mississippi has something other people don’t have.”

The snapper stock enhancement program is funded by the university, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and NOAA, he said.

Wild fish are caught by line, induced to spawn and within 100 days four- to six-inch long red snappers are produced, he said. The fish are large enough to be tagged and released into the wild, he said.

Once the $1.3-million NOAA-funded red snapper laboratory is up and running, it will produce 70,000 to 180,000 fish per year, he said.

Lemus said red snapper now cost more than dollar each to raise. By comparison, commercially raised red drum cost 17 cents each, he said.

For fishermen, the stock enhancement is behind tightening catch rules. The National Marine Fisheries recently proposed a 54-day snapper season in 2010 that would start June 1 and end July 24. The daily limit would be two fish.

GCRL also has programs to rear speckled trout and striped bass, but Lemus said snapper are the most difficult fish to produce. The snapper larvae are “very delicate and difficult to grow.”

Some commercial and recreational fishermen, and scientists dispute the “overfished” status given red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

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