Keeping the Emperor Snapper (Lutjanus sebae) | TFH Magazine (2023)

Author: Brian M. Scott

Lutjanus sebae

(Cuvier 1816)

Perciformes, Lutjanidae

Original name: Diacope sebae

Common names: Emperor snapper, emperor red snapper, red emperor, government bream, king snapper, queenfish

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Maximum size: 46 inches (116 cm), 72 pounds (32.7 kg)

Habitat: Tropical marine, brackish. Reef associated, depth 5 to 180 m (16 to 590 feet)

Natural range: Widespread in the Indo-Pacific, Red Sea to New Caledonia and Japan to Australia

Diet: General predator on fish, crustaceans, cephalopods, etc.

Aquarium concerns: This fish is too large for any standard home aquaria

Water Quality Control

As with all large-growing predatory marine species, the emperor snapper requires excellent water quality in order to thrive in an aquarium setting. High-quality water is best established and maintained through large and frequent water changes in addition to the use of a high-powered, high-flow filtration unit and an effective protein skimmer.

The emperor snapper Lutjanus sebae is a remarkably simple-looking yet strikingly beautiful species, highly sought for its hardiness, adult size, and character in aquaria. Juveniles and adults alike make impressive display specimens in properly sized setups. Proper size is the key here, as this fish can reach 46 inches—that’s almost 4 feet—and more than 70 pounds! There are, however, also some other areas of concern with keeping this species healthy in captivity, so I’ll pass along some of the information that I have gathered on this fish over the past 15 or so years of dealing with them.

What to Look For

If an emperor snapper is on your wish list, you’ll need to know what to look for when trying to choose a healthy specimen. As with most “tankbusting” species, this fish is commonly imported as a small juvenile. This is true for two basic reasons. First, juveniles are far easier to collect with a net or other capture device. Second, juveniles are much easier to transport and acclimate to life in aquariums.

An Eating Specimen

However, juvenile emperor snappers need to eat, and this—combined with their ravenous appetites—means that the shipping procedure can be very traumatic on them, since feeding during transportation is not an option. Thus, newly imported specimens may often be slightly emaciated by the time they make their way to dealers’ tanks. As with all fishes, and more so with this species, ensure that the specimen you choose to add to your collection is eating before you bring it home.

Signs of Illness

Additionally, there are a host of other things that could possibly be wrong with a juvenile emperor snapper. Disease (both internal and external infections) is the most common ailment. Of course, inspect new prospects for any sign of illness (i.e., clamped fins, swollen eyes, lesions, string feces, etc.).

Internal Flagellates

Emperor snappers seem to be particularly sensitive to internal flagellates, which infest their digestive tract. The early sign of their presence is the lack of appetite the snapper will display. As the infestation progresses, the feces will become stringy and discolored. Eventually, the infestation will rob the fish of enough nutrients where the fish will perish.

To prevent this from happening, feed the newly acquired snapper with medicated foods for the first week or so while in your aquarium—or better yet, place the snapper in a quarantine aquarium for two weeks. Every new fish should go through a quarantine period in a separate tank set up specifically for that purpose. (Okay, okay, I’ll admit I am also very guilty of not quarantining all my new fishes!)

Feeding the Beasts

It should come as no surprise that the emperor snapper is a strict carnivore. A diet of rich, meaty foods such as shrimp, clam, fish (whole and/or chunked), squid, and other seafood should constitute the bulk of the diet. I would also highly recommend, in addition to a well-rounded meaty diet, that a high-quality pellet also be offered. Since the emperor snapper is so common at such a small size, there should be little to no difficulty in getting these smaller specimens to accept prepared foods.

I have had great success with small sinking foods that are offered to the fish along with their meat-based foods. Additionally, it’s not a bad idea to get in the habit of offering frozen formulations, too.

Most hobbyists will house an emperor snapper with other fishes of similar feeding preferences. While this makes feeding time essentially a breeze by having the ability to throw some shrimp in the tank and walk away, I would highly discourage such a mindset. I have personally experienced recurring feeding issues with emperor snappers of many sizes, and while the largest one that I have cared for was a mere 14 inches or so in total length, that is still a large specimen. And if I recall correctly, he was quite temperamental when it came to feeding time, having fought several failure-to-feed-battles throughout his long life in an aquarium.

Basically, in my opinion and based on my experiences, feeding problems are the single most common ailment that you will encounter with this species.

Room to Grow

As long as feeding issues are kept to a minimum, you will have almost no difficulty in getting emperor snappers to grow in your tank. There is another problem that may arise, however—just how big these fish grow! I would conservatively estimate that of the infinitely small number of emperor snappers that are imported and actually survive their first year in captivity, only about a quarter of them will actually grow large enough to see their colors change from that of a strikingly beautiful juvenile to a bland, but still beautiful, adult.

Making Space

To accomplish such a feat takes space—a lot of space! It would be foolish to simply throw a random figure in terms of gallonage out here and say, “you need a tank of X size if you are to grow your emperor snapper up to adulthood.” That is not a wise approach, nor an accurate one, and I really cannot give carved-in-stone dimensions here that I feel are accurate enough to attach my name to.

One reason for this is because I have seen several specimens grow to half size of about 2 feet in impossibly small aquariums (e.g., 180 gallons). Now do not get me wrong here folks, I am not advocating the use of smaller aquaria to house these beasts, but I will say that I have been surprised on more than one occasion to see/hear that such a specimen was raised for that long in something as small as a 180-gallon aquarium. Now to some, a 180-gallon tank is a huge piece of furniture, but for those of you that are hardcore tankbustin’ fish nuts, a 180-gallon tank is just the filter sump!

How Big Is Big Enough?

The absolute minimum size aquarium for any fish is wider than the fish is long (so it can turn around) and several fish-lengths long (so it has some room to swim before having to turn around). For this species that translates into a minimum of 4 feet by 16 feet. At 4 feet deep that means a 2000-gallon tank!

Perhaps the best way to approach the question of tank size is to simply suggest that you should do whatever it takes to provide the absolute largest aquarium that money and space will allow. This will help ensure that your emperor snapper will have the best home possible. Since I tend to err on the side of caution, I will also throw out a little useful tip here: By increasing the circulation and the size and frequency of water changes, you can mimic the benefits of a larger aquarium. What I mean is that fishes will usually do better, or just as well, in aquariums with good circulation and more frequent doses of clean, new water as those that are housed in an aquarium of slightly larger volume—just something to keep in mind.

Thoughts on Tankmates

When choosing tankmates for an emperor snapper, keep two things in mind. First, any prospective tankmates should be too large for the snapper to swallow. Be warned, however, that emperor snappers are not always aware of the size of their mouths, so even marginal fishes should be avoided. In other words, make certain the tankmates cannot effectively be swallowed!

Second, emperor snappers seem to prefer tankmates that are a bit less rambunctious in terms of rapid, jerky, and random movements. Thus, I would stay away from larger flashy fishes and keep to the pretty graceful fishes like tangs, angels, and butterflies. While I am thinking of it, you might also want to watch potential fin-nipping species, as they would love to have a taste of a juvenile’s flowing fins. There are actually many candidates for tankmates of an emperor snapper, and your local aquarium professional can certainly assist you in selecting the right ones for your setup. Additionally, high-quality online Internet forums are good places to seek advice about fishes like the emperor snapper, too. Whichever outlet you choose to get your information from, just make sure the source is talking from at least a little bit of first-hand experience.

Unique Attributes and Notes

All right, so emperor snappers look cool, maybe they even act cool, but the skeptical fishkeeper may ask, “what else is there about them that make them a good addition for my tank?” Now, while I try not to make a habit of talking anyone into keeping a certain fish, nor even types of fishes, I should at least provide my dedicated readers with some useful and unique points that make this fish interesting or cool, right? Maybe knowing some unique attributes of this species will provide a good excuse for absolutely having to have one in your tank!

  • Did you know that juvenile emperor snappers are commonly associated with sea urchins? I never knew that! Just as clownfishes are commensal with anemones, emperor snappers can often be found swimming amongst the spines of sea urchins. This predominately takes place in shallow, estuarine waters, and is less common in deeper rubble or reef zones.
  • Emperor snappers inhabit a wide range of habitats. Juveniles tend to be found in either shallow coastal bays and lagoons, or on coral reefs. Occasionally, juveniles or subadults can be found in brackish conditions. Adults (those over 18 inches) move into deeper water during warm months and shallow water during the cooler winter months. Adults are usually found either alone or in large schools of same-size specimens—but in captivity, only one per tank, folks; adults in aquaria tend to be rather belligerent toward each other.
  • Several sources that provide care information on this fish indicate that beefheart is an excellent food for emperor snappers. In my (strong) opinion I do not find this to be true at all. I feel that red meats, and foods associated with red-meat animals in nature, do not serve as good fish food. They are often fatty and will make a terrible mess of your water quality. Additionally, since we are talking about a marine fish here, can you imagine what fatty foods would do to your protein skimmer? Talk about a reaction—you’d have a flood of foam!

As a parting note, a common myth about this species is that they are difficult to keep alive. As mentioned previously, I tend to agree for the most part, but only if the juvenile does not feed. Healthy specimens are voracious feeders, and just like groupers and lionfishes, emperor snappers are capable of eating themselves to death—literally.

Does Your Fish Have Proper Food and Space?

Presented here are two main concerns with keeping emperor snappers in aquaria: proper feeding and adequate space. As long as the juvenile, or even adult, specimen is actively and aggressively feeding, there is a good chance that it will do well in your care. That having been said, always keep the diet varied and try not to allow a mindset take hold where you simply just use one or two types of foods because it’s easier that way.

Regarding space, a standard 180-gallon tank is just a starting point if you plan to grow your juvenile emperor snapper into an adult. As with any species of fish, always try and buy the largest aquarium that you can afford and that your floor will hold. Of course, don’t forget that huge tanks still need to fit through the doorway of your home, so be sure to make that measurement before heading off to your local aquarium store to buy that monster tank.

Good luck with your fishkeeping endeavors, and if you have the desire and means to do so, try an emperor red snapper—you might like it!


How big do emperor snappers get? ›

This species attains a maximum total length of 116 cm (46 in), although 60 cm (24 in) is more typical, and the maximum published weight is 32.7 kg (72 lb).

What do emperor snapper fish eat? ›

It should come as no surprise that the emperor snapper is a strict carnivore. A diet of rich, meaty foods such as shrimp, clam, fish (whole and/or chunked), squid, and other seafood should constitute the bulk of the diet.

Is Red Emperor fishy? ›

Red Emperor is a superb eating fish with firm white flesh and a medium to large flake. Fillets are moist and succulent with an excellent sweet sea flavour that is enhanced by Asian flavours. A delicious fish eaten hot or cold. Whole Red Emperor 1-2kg are also available.

How old is a 30 cm snapper? ›


Snapper reach full maturity around 4yrs old and about 30cm in length. The average schooling snapper that are encountered can be anything from 4 to 10 years old and the larger snapper around 5+kg can be anything from 20 to 60 years old.

How much does an emperor fish cost? ›

Item #DescriptionPrice
000372Emperor Angelfish -Juvenile, Tiny: up to 1.5", Indo Pacific$129.99
000373Emperor Angelfish -Juvenile, Small: over 1.5-2", Indo Pacific$149.99
000374Emperor Angelfish -Juvenile, Medium: over 2-3", Indo Pacific$159.99
000375Emperor Angelfish -Juvenile, Large: over 3-4.5", Indo Pacific$199.99

What is the best leader for snapper? ›

The wire is the best leader material for snapper fishing, as it is strong enough to help reel in big snappers, and resilient enough for the small ones which love to thrash about once they are hooked. Make sure that your fishing rod is equipped with wire leader material before you head on out and catch some snappers.

What is the best live bait for snapper? ›

“Big snapper will hit a dead bait, but to consistently target trophy fish, big live baits are your best option.” Pinfish and ruby red lips are two of Price's and snappers favorites. On those days when live bait is hard to come by, Price says large chunks of meat also work well.

How long does it take for a snapper to grow to legal size? ›

Snapper mature at 3 to 4 years, when they're 20cm to 28cm long. They can live for more than 60 years and grow up to 105cm. They release many batches of eggs all through spring and summer.

Are emperor fish good eating? ›

It is especially tasty as fish and chips or sauteed fish and gravy, or even grilled with some vegetables. The Emperor fish is versatile, which makes it such a great match for Indian food. If you are looking for a firm fish that needs very little seasoning or garnish, the Emperor fish should be your preferred choice.

How much is a emperor snapper? ›

Item #DescriptionPrice
000123Emperor Snapper, Small: over 2-2.5", Indo Pacific * Restriction On Guarantee$34.99
000124Emperor Snapper, Medium: over 2.5-4.5", Indo Pacific * Restriction On Guarantee$49.99
000125Emperor Snapper, Large: over 4.5-6.5", Indo Pacific * Restriction On Guarantee$79.99

Which fish taste the most fishy? ›

Fish that are higher in fat, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and sardines, have much stronger flavors than other fish.

How long should a snapper leader be? ›

I prefer to use a small swivel, rated around 80lbs, attached to a leader of around 1.2m in length. Leader weights can vary from 20lb through to about 80lbs, however 40-60lb usually covers most situations. Light leaders are best, however snapper can have quite sharp teeth and can bite through leaders lighter than 40lb.

How old is a 50 cm snapper? ›

In waters off Shark Bay, pink snapper reach maturity after three to four years on average, when they are around 40 centimetres long. In contrast, in the cooler waters off the lower west coast, snapper may be five to six years of age and 50 to 60 centimetres in length by the time they reach maturity.

What is the biggest snapper ever caught? ›

A youthful Mark Hemmingway with the current world snapper all-tackle record of 17.2kg, caught at Motiti Island in November, 1992.

What fish is the most valuable? ›

#1 Most Expensive Fish: Platinum Arowana

The Platinum, also popularly known as the Asian Arowana or Scleropages formosus, sometimes incorrectly referred to as a Dragon Fish, it sells for up to $400,000, making it far and away the most expensive fish that can be bought for an aquarium.

Which fish is very costly? ›

Although some people may take pride in calling Hilsa or Ilish the most expensive fish they have ever consumed, the ghol fish is much more costly. The ghol fish price came into the limelight when a fisherman from Palghar, Maharashtra, became a millionaire in a day. His catch? 157 ghol fishes.

What does emperor fish eat? ›

This fish is omnivorous, eating both small invertebrates and plants. It prefers sponges and algae. The emperor angelfish can grow to be up to 15 inches long. The emperor angelfish is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

What braid should I use for snapper? ›

Standard 4-6kg spin tackle loaded with 20-30lb braid is ideal when targeting snapper in water from 30-50m.

What size hook should I use for snapper? ›

The best hook size for mangrove snapper and sheepshead is a #1 J hook or a 1/0 circle hook. Smaller hook sizes are a must for catching excellent bait stealers with small mouths like mangrove snappers and sheepshead.

Should you always fish with a leader? ›

A leader line for fly fishing is essential because the heavy colored fly line used to cast lightweight flies is too thick for tying on the small flies and is easily detectable by fish.

What Colour are snapper attracted to? ›

Pink often works well for snapper! Bright pink is a consistent performer, but the reason for this is not obvious. As the light changes, so should lure colours.

What Colour lures do snapper like? ›

Any colour will work on a given day, however let's have a look at a few favourites across light/natural colours, darker silhouette colours and fluoro colours. Light / Natural - Pearl, Bad Shad, Smokey Shad, Shiner and Coconut Ice Glow.

What month is best for snapper? ›

When is the best time to catch Snapper? The most ideal time to target snapper is between late spring and early summer. (October and December) This is due to the shift in seasons. Larger schools of snapper move closer in shore, into channels and harbours for more balanced water temperatures.

How many snapper can you keep per person? ›

The daily limit is seven snapper per person.

What is the lifespan of a snapper? ›

Most snapper mature between 3 and 5 years of age or around 230 mm in length. Adult snapper can grow to 1 m in length (over 15 kg) and live to over 60 years in age.

How often do snapper reproduce? ›

Given that the average time between successive spawning is four days, female red snappers will spawn about 30 times (some more, some fewer) during the spawning season.

What's the healthiest fish to eat? ›

5 of the Healthiest Fish to Eat
  • Atlantic Mackerel. ...
  • Sardines, Wild-Caught (including canned) ...
  • Rainbow Trout (and some types of Lake) ...
  • Herring. ...
  • Bluefin Tuna. ...
  • Orange Roughy. ...
  • Salmon, Farmed in Pens (Atlantic) ...
  • Mahi-Mahi (Costa Rica, Guatemala & Peru)
9 Mar 2022

What fish is high in mercury? ›

King mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, ahi tuna, and bigeye tuna all contain high levels of mercury. Women who are pregnant or nursing or who plan to become pregnant within a year should avoid eating these fish. So should children younger than six. Ease up on tuna.

Is snapper low in mercury? ›

Other seafood with low mercury levels include: All prawns, lobsters and bugs. All squids and octopus. Snapper.

What are the best tasting snapper fish? ›

Another great-tasting snapper is the Mangrove (aka Gray) Snapper. This fish also consistently ranks among the most delicious fish to eat in Florida, popular among local chefs to serve the whole, grilled fish. Like the Mutton, this snapper features delicate white meat with firm flesh and a lean texture.

How old is a 16 inch red snapper? ›

A 16-inch fish could be anywhere between 2 and 7 years old, a 24-inch fish could be 3 to 9 years old, and a 32-inch could be from 5 to over 35 years old. The two oldest fish in the study were 52.6 and 51.7 years old, but were only 34 inches and 34.5 inches long and weighed a modest 17.3 and 20.2 pounds.

Why is red snapper expensive? ›

As it grows in popularity, snapper is increasingly becoming a generic term for white fish. The high demand has led to a high price and the high price has led to fish fraud. A study by University of North Carolina researchers found about 73% of fish they studied that were labeled as red snapper were mislabeled.

What is the least fish tasting fish? ›

Tilapia – tilapia is arguably the mildest tasting fish there is. It's not fishy at all and has a mild sweetness. Tilapia is easy to prepare and goes well with a variety of different flavor profiles. Cod – cod has a mild flavor that's slightly sweet like tilapia.

Which fish can taste its whole body? ›

Did you know that channel catfish have one of the most highly developed senses of taste of all of North Dakota's fishes? While taste buds are most abundant near the mouth and on its barbels (whiskers), the entire body of a channel catfish is covered in taste receptors.

What is the biggest type of snapper? ›

Cubera Snapper | National Geographic. The biggest of all snapper species feast on fish, shrimp, and crabs and are easily able to tackle even tougher fare because of large strong teeth.

What is the best tasting snapper? ›

Quite simply, Red Snapper are one of the tastiest fish on the planet. They're easily the tastiest Snapper species.

Which snapper is best? ›

Though not much differs in their flavor profiles, many consider the red snapper to be far more superior among all snappers. But don't underestimate the mangrove snapper. It is also considered to be one of the most delicious white fish meats. Most chefs prefer red snapper for grilling whole or broiling.

Is Big snapper good eating? ›

Large Snapper are a true trophy fish, prized for their hard fight, relative elusiveness, striking appearance and fantastic eating qualities.

How deep should a snapper be? ›

Where the Wild Fish Are. Red snappers are both deep water and shallow dwellers. You can find them at any depth between 30 and 200 feet, usually huddled by nearby protective structures. Favorite hot spots include piers, seawalls, and old wreckage.

What is considered a trophy red snapper? ›

Not a big man who catches red snappers, but a man who catches big red snappers — trophy snappers, by his definition, weigh 28 pounds or larger.

Why is it called red snapper? ›

They have a long triangular face with the upper part sloping more strongly than the lower. Their jaws are equal, with the lower one sometimes slightly projecting. They have enlarged canine teeth, which is why they are called “snappers.”

What did red snapper used to be called? ›

Yelloweye Rockfish, Now Red Snapper

It's easy to see how this fish got its name.

Is emperor fish tasty? ›

It is especially tasty as fish and chips or sauteed fish and gravy, or even grilled with some vegetables. The Emperor fish is versatile, which makes it such a great match for Indian food. If you are looking for a firm fish that needs very little seasoning or garnish, the Emperor fish should be your preferred choice.

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