Saddletail Snapper (2020)

Lutjanus malabaricus

  • Thor Saunders (Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade, Northern Territory)
  • Anthony Roelofs (Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland)
  • Fabian Trinnie (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Western Australia)
  • Corey Wakefield (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Western Australia)
  • Stephen Newman (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Western Australia)

Date Published: June 2021

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Saddletail Snapper are widely distributed throughout the Indo-West Pacific region. Genetic studies identified three broad biological stocks across northern Australia [Elliot 1996, Salini et al. 2006], but more recent research using otolith microchemistry and parasites has identified discrete biological stocks in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, Timor and Arafura Seas, and the Gulf of Carpentaria. This assessment is therefore presented at the biological stock level. The East Coast QLD biological stock is classified as undefined, while the North Coast Biogregion, Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, Timor and Arafura Seas, and Gulf of Carpentaria biological stocks are all classified as sustainable.


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Stock Status Overview

Stock status determination
Jurisdiction Stock Stock status Indicators
Northern Territory Gulf of Carpentaria Sustainable

Catch, biomass

Northern Territory Timor, Arafura seas Sustainable

Biomass, fishing mortality

Northern Territory Joseph Bonaparte Gulf Sustainable

Catch, biomass

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Stock Structure

Saddletail Snapper is a widespread Indo-Pacific species found from Shark Bay in Western Australia, across northern Australia to the east coast of Queensland [Newman 2002]. Genetic studies indicate that three biological stocks occur across the species' Australian range: the North Coast Bioregion biological stock, the Northern Australian biological stock (including the Timor Sea, Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria) and the East coast of Queensland biological stock [Elliot 1996, Salini et al. 2006]. Recently, Saunders et al. [2018] used otolith microchemistry and parasitology to identify separate biological Saddletail Snapper stocks in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, Timor and Arafura seas and Gulf of Carpentaria.

Here, assessments of stock status are presented at the biological stock level—North Coast Bioregion (Western Australia), Joseph Bonaparte Gulf and Timor-Arafura seas (Northern Territory), Gulf of Carpentaria (Northern Territory and Queensland) and East coast Queensland.

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Stock Status

Gulf of Carpentaria

In this stock, Saddletail Snapper is mainly harvested by trawl vessels in the commercial Gulf of Carpentaria Developmental Fin Fish Trawl Fishery) (GOCDFFTF - Queensland) and Demersal Fishery (DF- Northern Territory). There is no reliable estimate of recreational or Indigenous harvest although it is likely to be relatively low given the offshore distribution of this species. Saddletail Snapper were also exposed to fishing from foreign fleets during the 1950s to the 1980s [O’Neill et al. 2011], but these catches (annual peak of 261 t) were substantially lower than contemporary levels. In the Queensland portion of this stock commercial catches were very low (average < 4 t) until they increased substantially during 2002–2013 (average 135 t). Fish trawl effort from the GOCDFFTF declined markedly after 2012 as a result of trawl effort being transferred to other stocks and there has been no catch of Saddletail Snapper by this fishery since 2016. However, in the Northern Territory portion of this stock an increase in the targeting of this species by the DF in 2019 led to a very large increase of the catch (860 t).

A preliminary assessment using catch data from all commercial fisheries applied to a modified catch-MSY model (developed by Martell and Froese [2013] and modified by Haddon et al. [2018]), estimated that the 2019 biomass of Saddletail Snapper was 35 per cent of unfished levels [Saunders and Roelofs 2020] suggesting that the biomass of this stock is unlikely to be depleted and that recruitment is unlikely to be impaired. The model outputs indicate that the current Fishing Mortality (F) is above the limit point, however, 2018 and 2019 are the only years where this has happened. Additionally, a trawl survey conducted in 1990 predicted that the biomass of Saddletail Snapper in this stock was approximately 14,000 t (Sainsbury et al. 1991) so even the peak catch in 2019 only represents approximately a 6% harvest fraction. Consequently, the high F predicted by the model is probably an artefact of relatively low historical catches, which do not represent the large biomass present and consequently bias F upwards and depletion downwards. Nevertheless, subsequent years will require close monitoring to ensure that the model bias is in fact true and unsustainable fishing pressure is not being exerted.

On the basis of the evidence provided above, the Gulf of Carpentaria biological stock is classified as a sustainable stock.

Joseph Bonaparte Gulf

Harvest of this Saddletail Snapper stock was first reported in 1988 and the average catch from trap and line vessels in the Demersal Fishery (DF) to 2011 was very small (average < 2 t) compared to the adjacent Timor-Arafura seas stock. From 2012 a trawler entered the fishery and catches increased to 354 t in the first year before declining to 252 t in 2019. A trawl survey conducted on this stock [Ramm 1994] suggested that the Saddletail Snapper biomass was relatively large (6 677 t). Consequently, the peak harvest represents approximately a 5 per cent harvest fraction. This evidence suggests that the biomass of this stock is unlikely to be depleted and that recruitment is unlikely to be impaired. Similarly, the harvest in 2019 is only a small fraction of the estimated biomass indicating that the current level of fishing mortality is unlikely to cause the stock to become recruitment impaired.

Based on the evidence above, the Joseph Bonaparte biological stock is classified as a sustainable stock.

Timor, Arafura seas

Saddletail Snapper was one of several tropical snapper species that were heavily exploited in this stock by foreign fishing operations from the early 1970s to 1990 [O’Neill et al. 2011]. Annual catches by this fleet peaked in the late 1980s at 2 189 t. Domestic harvest was negligible until 1995 when trawl operations began. Since then catches from this stock have increased steadily to a maximum of 1529 t in 2015 before declining to 807 t in 2019 as operators targeted effort in other stocks. CPUE has increased substantially during 1996–2019 [Saunders 2020]. 

This stock was assessed using data up to 2019 using a stochastic stock reduction analysis (SRA) model [Saunders 2020]. Biomass levels were estimated to be 71 per cent of unfished levels, well above the limit reference point. The above evidence indicates that the biomass of this stock is unlikely to be recruitment impaired. The SRA outputs also indicated that the current fishing mortality was well below the level that could cause the stock to become recruitment impaired. The above evidence indicates that the current level of fishing mortality is unlikely to cause the stock to become recruitment impaired.

On the basis of the evidence provided above, the Timor-Arafura seas biological stock is classified as a sustainable stock.

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Saddletail Snapper biology [Fry and Milton 2009, Fry et al. 2009, McPherson et al. 1992, McPherson and Squire 1992, Carpenter and Niem 2001, Newman 2002, Newman et al. 2000]

Species Longevity / Maximum Size Maturity (50 per cent)
Saddletail Snapper Northern and Western Australia: 33 years, 680 mm SL East coast Queensland, 20 years; 1000 mm TL Northern and Western Australia: 9 years, Males 280 mm SL, Females 370 mm SL East coast Queensland: Females 576 mm FL
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Distribution of reported commercial catch of Saddletail Snapper – confidential catch is not shown
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Fishing methods
Northern Territory
Fish Trap
Bottom Trawls
Hook and Line
Hook and Line
Hook and Line
Management methods
Method Northern Territory
Gear restrictions
Spatial closures
Spatial zoning
Total allowable catch
Possession limit
Spatial closures
Northern Territory
Commercial 2.06Kt
Charter 4.5 t
Indigenous Unknown
Recreational 18.2 t (2015)

Western AustraliaActive Vessels Data is confidential as there were fewer than three vessels in Pilbara Fish Trawl Interim Managed Fishery and Pilbara Trap Managed Fishery.

Western Australia – Recreational (Catch) Boat-based recreational catch is from 1 September 2017–31 August 2018. These data are derived from those reported in [Ryan et al. 2019].

Western Australia – Recreational (management methods) A Recreational Fishing from Boat Licence is required for the use of a powered boat to fish or to transport catch or fishing gear to or from a land-based fishing location.

Western Australia – Indigenous (management methods) Subject to application of Section 211 of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), and the exemption from a requirement to hold a recreational fishing licence, the non-commercial take by Indigenous fishers is covered by the same arrangements as that for recreational fishing.

Northern Territory – Recreational (catch) Saddletail Snapper and Crimson Snapper catch were combined during the Northern Territory 2010 recreational fishing survey [West et al. 2012].

Northern Territory – Charter (management methods) In the Northern Territory, charter operators are regulated through the same management methods as the recreational sector but are subject to additional limits on license and passenger numbers.

Northern Territory – Indigenous (management methods) The Fisheries Act 1988 (NT), specifies that “…without derogating from any other law in force in the Territory, nothing in a provision of this Act or an instrument of a judicial or administrative character made under it limits the right of Aboriginals who have traditionally used the resources of an area of land or water in a traditional manner from continuing to use those resources in that area in that manner”.

Queensland – Indigenous (management methods) for more information see https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/business-priorities/fisheries/traditional-fishing

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Catch Chart

Commercial catch of Saddletail Snapper - note confidential catch not shown
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  1. Carpenter, KE and Niem, VH 2001, (Eds.) FAO species identification guide for fishery purposes. The living marine resources of the Western Central Pacific. Vol 5. Bony fishes part 3 (Menidae to Pomacentridae). Rome, FAO. 2001. pp 27913380.
  2. DPIRD 2017, North Coast demersal scalefish resource harvest strategy 2017–2021. Version 1.0. Fisheries Management Paper No. 285. Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Government of Western Australia, Perth, Australia. 35p.
  3. Elliot, NG 1996, Allozyme and mitochondrial DNA analysis of the tropical saddle-tail sea perch, Lutjanus malabaricus (Schneider), from Australian Waters. Marine and Freshwater Research, 47: 869–876.
  4. Fry, G and Milton, DA 2009, Age, growth and mortality estimates for populations of red snappers Lutjanus erythropterus and L. malabaricus from northern Australia and eastern Indonesia. Fisheries Science, 75: 1219–1229.
  5. Fry, G, Milton, DA, Van Der Velde, T, Stobutzki, I, Andamari, R, Badrudin and Sumiono, B 2009, Reproductive dynamics and nursery habitat preferences of two commercially important Indo–Pacific red snappers Lutjanus erythropterus and L. malabaricus. Fisheries Science, 75: 145–158.
  6. Haddon M, Punt A and Burch P 2018, simpleSA: A package containing functions to facilitate relatively simple stock assessments. R package version 0.1.18.
  7. Leigh, GM and O'Neill, MF 2016, Gulf of Carpentaria Finfish Trawl Fishery: Maximum Sustainable Yield, Agri-Science Queensland, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland.
  8. Martell, S, and Froese, R. 2013, A simple method for estimating MSY from catch and resilience. Fish and Fisheries 14:504–514.
  9. McPherson, GR and Squire, L 1992, Age and growth of three dominant Lutjanus species of the Great Barrier Reef Inter-Reef Fishery. Asian Fisheries Science, 5: 25–36.
  10. McPherson, GR, Squire, L and O'Brien, J 1992, Reproduction of three dominant Lutjanus species of the Great Barrier Reef Inter-Reef Fishery. Asian Fisheries Science, 5: 15–24.
  11. Newman, SJ 2002, Growth rate, age determination, natural mortality and production potential of the scarlet sea perch, Lutjanus malabaricus Schneider 1801, off the Pilbara coast of north-western Australia, Fisheries Research, 58: 215–225.
  12. Newman, SJ, Brown, JI, Fairclough, DV, Wise, BS, Bellchambers, LM, Molony, BW, Lenanton, RCJ, Jackson, G., Smith, KA, Gaughan, DJ, Fletcher, WJ, McAuley, RB and Wakefield, CB 2018, A risk assessment and prioritisation approach to the selection of indicator species for the assessment of multi-species, multi-gear, multi-sector fishery resources. Marine Policy, 88: 11–22.
  13. Newman, SJ, Cappo, M, Williams, DM 2000, Age, growth, mortality rates and corresponding yield estimates using otoliths of the tropical red snappers, Lutjanus erythropterus, L. malabaricus and L. sebae, from the central Great Barrier Reef. Fisheries Research, 48: 1–14.
  14. Newman, SJ, Wakefield, C, Skepper, C, Boddington, D, and Blay, N 2020, North Coast Demersal Resource Status Report 2019. pp. 159–168. In: Gaughan, D.J. and Santoro, K. (eds.) 2020. Status Reports of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of Western Australia 2018/19: The State of the Fisheries. Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Western Australia, Perth, Australia. 291p.
  15. O'Neill, MF, Leigh, GM, Martin, JM, Newman, SJ, Chambers, M, Dichmont, CM, Buckworth, RC 2011, Sustaining productivity of tropical red snappers using new monitoring and reference points, Fisheries Research and Development Corporation Project Number 2009/037.
  16. QDAF, Queensland statewide recreational fishing survey 2019-20, In prep.
  17. QFish, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, www.qfish.gov.au
  18. Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, 2020, Reef line fishery harvest strategy: 2020–2025, Brisbane, Queensland.
  19. Ramm DC, 1994, Assessment of the status, composition and market potential of the demersal trawl fish resources in northern Australian waters. Final report the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation on project number 90/15.
  20. Ryan, KL, Hall, NG, Lai, EK, Smallwood, CB, Tate, A, Taylor, S.M., Wise, BS 2019, Statewide survey of boat-based recreational fishing in Western Australia 2017/18. Fisheries Research Report No. 297. Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Government of Western Australia, Perth. 
  21. Sainsbury, KJ, Campbell, R, Brewer, DT, Harris, AN, McLoughlin, K, Ramm, DC, Staples, DJ, Xiao, Y and Knuckey, I 1991, Northern Fisheries Research Committee Trawl Fisheries Assessment Working Group.
  22. Salini, J, Ovenden, J, Street, R, Pendrey, R, Haryantis and Ngurah 2006, Genetic population structure of red snappers (Lutjanus malabaricus Bloch and Schneider, 1801 and Lutjanus erythropterus Bloch, 1790) in central and eastern Indonesia and northern Australia. Journal of Fish Biology, 68(suppl. B): 217–234.
  23. Saunders, T and Roelofs, A 2020, Gulf of Carpentaria Saddletail Snapper Stock Status Summary - 2020. Unpublished Fishery Report.
  24. Saunders, T, Barton, D, Crook, D, Hearnden, M and Newman, S 2018, Stock/Management unit division in the Northern Territory Offshore Snapper Fishery. Unpublished Fishery Report.
  25. Stock Status Summary - 2020 Saddletail Snapper (Lutjanus malabaricus) Timor-Arafura seas Stock Reduction Analysis. Unpublished Fishery Report.
  26. Teixeira, D, Janes, R, and Webley, J 2021, 2019–20 Statewide Recreational Fishing Survey Key Results. Project Report. State of Queensland, Brisbane.
  27. Webley, J, McInnes, K, Teixeira, D, Lawson, A and Quinn, R 2015, Statewide Recreational Fishing Survey 2013-14, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Brisbane.

Downloadable reports

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