The yellowtail is a semi-pelagic transient species that sticks out among the ~113 species found in the snapper family of Lutjanidae. These mid water swimmers are the only member of its genus Ocyurus! The genus name is derived from the Greek okys- meaning quick and oura- meaning tail, the species name chrysurus was inspired from the Greek chryso- meaning golden. Many of the yellowtail’s commonly caught cousins like the mangrove, mutton and red snapper have tails that are wider/square in shape which are perfect for maneuvering in and around structure providing bursts of speed when needed. The yellowtail however have a deeply forked tail that normally is associated with faster and sustained swimming speeds hence the genus translation of “quick tail.” This species is usually found suspended in the water column where that tail shape gives the yellowtail an advantage rather than hiding and feeding between rocks and crevices amongst all it’s square or rounded tailed pals.
Rainbow runner (Elagatis bipinnulata) off Wolf Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, South America. Note the lack of noticeable scales and more cylindrical body shape when compared to the yellowtail snapper.
There aren’t too many species that you can get yellowtail snapper mixed up with although the rainbow runner (Elagatis bipinnulata) also have a deeply forked yellow tail and inhabit the same space in the water column and areas as the yellowtail snapper. Rainbow runners are a member of the jack family and have a smoother cylindrical appearance with a scaly/boney projection on both sides of the base of the tail known as keels.
Distribution and Diet
Yellowtail snapper distribution via the Florida Museum
Yellowtail are a schooling species that live in the Western Atlantic and can be found from Massachusetts to Brazil however this fish becomes more abundant in tropical waters around South Florida and throughout the Caribbean. In temperate and subtropical environments adult yellowtail may be found further offshore in more stable temperature and saline conditions around hardbottom, reefs and wrecks but become commonly spotted nearshore in tropical environments with juvenile yellowtail settling around shallow hard bottom and seagrass beds. This primarily nocturnal predator that have great eyesight feeds above the reef structure. Adult yellowtail prey upon invertebrates like crabs, shrimp, squid, marine worms as well as small fish while juveniles feed primarily on plankton. Yellowtail have relatively small home ranges staying within 1 km but can and sometimes do larger movements.
Reproduction and Growth
The oldest yellowtail aged was 28 years old (!)(SEDAR 64) but the average life expectancy and fish caught is most like younger. In study done between 1994-1999 1528 yellowtail were aged and the oldest fish out of that group was 13. Sexual maturity in this species occurs between the ages of 3-4 and 9-12 inches in length. Yellowtail snapper are batch spawners forming offshore spawning aggregations and in some areas can spawn year-round! Peak spawning activity for this species is mid-summer with a decline in winter months. A spawn can produce 100,000- 1.5 million floating eggs which hatch within 24 hours. Adult pigmentation occurs around ~62 days post hatch and at 16 mm in length.
When making a seafood choice based on sustainability, Yellowtail snapper are listed as a “good alternative” by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch and FishChoice for fish caught in the U.S. on hook and line. In other areas and countries there may be less fisheries management for this species that prevents overfishing. This species is NOT listed as endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Be sure to follow the proper local fisheries regulations when fishing for yellowtail, as they do have a length and aggregate bag limit in both Florida state and federal waters.
To read more about sustainability or yellowtail stock information check out these links: