OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) _
The Gulf Coast Research Laboratory , with the help of federal grant funds and assistance from other institutions, is working on a way to increase the Gulf's red snapper population.
Soon, hundreds more of the little red snappers, bred and grown in laboratory holding tanks, may be hanging around artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.
If all goes well, there could be more than 10,000 of the tiny fish around the reefs by fall. The Mississippi-based research facility is developing a way to ``pond raise'' the popular game fish and release them to the wild.
Jeffrey Lotz, the program's director, admitted he was a bit leery when red snapper was the marine species selected for the program designed to be a model for developing a way to restore fish populations to the Gulf. ``I was hoping it wouldn't be red snapper,'' he said. ``They are hard to raise.''
The food that red snapper larvae eat takes as much effort to raise as the red snapper itself, he said. Lotz said, however, that by the third year of the program his team had released 1,200 of the lab-raised tiny red snapper. The fourth year, it was 2,700 and last year, it was 9000. This fall the release goal is 10,000.
To get eggs and sperm for the hatchery, the team fishes for red snapper during spawning season until they have about 20 suitable candidates. They milk the eggs and sperm from the fish and use hormones to help with the fertilization process.
Researchers say the tricky part is getting the fertilized eggs past the larval stage while living in large tanks at the lab. But within 70 days, the fish have grown enough to be released to the wild.
The release is also a tricky part of the repopulation process. ``They are hand-delivered to the reef,'' Lotz said. ``We want to make sure they end up where we want them.'' There's the 20-mile boat ride with 10 to 20 little fish to a box. Then a diver carries the fish, 100 to 200 at a time, down to the reef for release.
``We hope to get to where we can pump them down,'' Lotz said. But that's too risky now, he said.
The tiny fish are tagged with an internal wire. It takes two or three years before the fingerlings are considered adult at 3 to 5 pounds. The ideal breeding age of the fish is 13 years and the oldest red snapper recorded was 52 years old.