Fish Facts: Sensational Snapper from Down Under

A closer look at an unusual and bizarre fish caught off Scott’s Reef, Australia.

Sailfin Snapper
Could you identify this snapper species? It’s a sailfin snapper from the western Pacific Ocean. Captain Sonny Schindler

Mystery Snapper Catch

When a buddy of mine returned from a trip fishing off Scott’s Reef, Australia, he had this photo of what he calls a “Sail Fin Snapper.” I think it’s such a cool-looking thing, I have to know: Is his identification correct? What can y’all tell me about this species? More importantly, do these fish live anywhere closer to the Gulf of Mexico? I would love to catch something like this, a little closer to home! — Capt. Sonny Schindler, Shore Thing Fishing Charters, Bay St Louis, Mississippi

The Sailfin Snapper

 “That, Sonny, is indeed a sailfin snapper (Symphorichthys spilurus),” says Ben Diggles, “and it’s certainly a very cool fish.” Noting that this fish hardly looks like snappers of the Gulf and south Atlantic coasts, Diggles says, “Believe it or not, this species is a tropical snapper from the family Lutjanidae. It’s the only member of its genus, with its closest relative being the Chinamanfish (Symphorus nematophorus).” The Chinamanfish is another snapper that doesn’t look like a snapper. 

Like the Chinamanfish, juveniles of the sailfin snapper have conspicuous long extensions of the first few spines of the dorsal fin, giving the fin a sail-like appearance, hence their name. “Unfortunately for Capt. Schindler, this species is unlikely to be found anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico, since it occurs naturally only in the western Pacific Ocean from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea to New Caledonia and northern Australia.”

And even within that range, Diggles says, “Sailfins are relatively uncommon. The species spends most of its time in small groups over sand bottoms in up to 200 feet near coral reefs, where they feed on small fishes, benthic crustaceans and mollusks. Adults also annually aggregate to spawn along steep drop-offs along certain reef edges.” The sailfin snapper reaches 2 feet or so in length. So far, the species hasn’t been entered in the IGFA’s record-keeping system—so this one could have been the official world record!

The Chinaman Snapper

The Chinamanfish is a snapper that doesn’t look like a snapper. Chinamanfish are well known to anglers fishing northern Australia reefs. Doug Olander

The Chinaman fish mentioned is somewhat related and similar in appearance, but longer and larger. This robust reef dweller is found in roughly the same neck of the woods. Though not particularly common, Chinamanfish are well known to anglers fishing northern Australia reefs, where this one was caught. Chinamans look tough and they fight accordingly. And they’re probably delicious but not widely eaten because the species has been widely implicated in ciguatera poisoning. Since there is no reliable test to determine if a fish carries ciguatoxin, possible candidates are best released rather than eaten. The IGFA world-record Chinaman came from western Australia in 1996 and weighed 29 pounds, 1 ounce.

SWS Fish Facts expert Ben Diggles, PhD, lives in Queensland, Australia. He’s an internationally known marine biologist and expert on Indo-Pacific fishes.

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