Even though this regal fish is called an emperor it is not actually part of the emperor family, Lethrinidae, it is actually a member of the Lutjanidae family also known as the snappers. The snapper family includes fish like the mangrove jack and red bass. The red emperor is a popular fish with anglers all over the world. This can be attributed to its spectacular fighting ability, which is characteristic of species in the snapper family, and it's tasty white flesh which has led to this fish being considered one of the best eating fish in the ocean. They are also a popular fish with avid aquarists who have the experience tank set ups large enough to accomodate this fast growing, large species.
The red emperor is a tropical species and that is native to the warm waters of the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans from northern Australia to Japan and then across to the Red Sea in the east. Here in Australia they can be found from the mid west of Western Australia right around the north of the country to the south east of Queensland. Their preferred habitat includes both rocky and coral reefs with sandy patches near by, they will also live in shallow waters at about 10 meters death right down to deeper offshore waters at 140 meters. Juveniles of the species prefer the shallower nearshore reefs, estuaries and mangroves and as they mature they will move out to offshore reefs and deeper waters. The juvenile red emperors are also closely associated with sea urchins in a similar way the clownfish are connected to sea anemones. The small juvenile fish will hide among the urchins spines for protection until they are large enough to venture out.
Juveniles and adults of this species can be distinguished from each other quite easily. The juveniles are quite a striking looking fish due to their colouring. They are a pale whitish colour with three wide deep red bands, as they age they lose this banding and develop and all over reddish/pink colouring. They are also quite large, muscular, deep bodied fish and when fully mature they can reach over 1 meter in length, some of the larger specimens can weigh in at over over 33 kilograms. These guys are also happy to be social and can be found living in schools with individuals of a similar size, they are also just as happy to be alone and some individuals will adopt a more solitary lifestyle. In the wild these fish can live for over 30 years.
Red emperors are a demersal reef species, this means that they spend most of their time around the seafloor. This is also where they will find the majority of their food. Just like other species in the snap family the red emperor is a carnivorous predator. They will forage near the seafloor for crustaceans, such as crabs, and even octopus. They will also feed on smaller fish and squid higher up in the water column. Due to their demersal nature these fish will rarely be caught on fishing gear like lures as they don’t commonly rise for bait. The best way to catch them is to get your bait to the seafloor where the fish will be feeding.
Around the Whitsundays during snorkels on the shallow fringing reefs you are likely to see the stunning juvenile red emperor swimming in schools with other juvenile reds and even in schools with different species of a similar size. If your dream is to catch one of these highly sought after fish your best chance is to head out to the outer great barrier reef and try your luck bottom bouncing in the deeper offshore waters.