Over 2,000 juvenile red snapper were released Friday on an artificial reef south of Ship Island, the first of three stockings in 2014 that biologists hope will produce more of the popular game fish along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

It is a joint operation involving the state’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs.

The fish were spawned at USM's Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center in Ocean Springs nearly three months ago as part of a research program sponsored by DMR.

“Red snapper is an economically important reef fish that is a popular target for anglers in the northern Gulf of Mexico,” said Kelly Lucas, chief scientific officer for DMR. “Currently red snapper is under intensive management with severe restrictions on fishing. Stock enhancement, or the release of cultured juveniles, can potentially provide an additional management tool to aid in red snapper fishery management.”

The red snapper were taken from the GCRL to the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor, and were transferred to a holding tank on a boat. Once the boat reached the artificial reef near Ship Island, water from the Mississippi Sound was put into a tank, and scientists checked the oxygen levels and water temperature.

A hose was connected from the boat to the reef, and divers sent the fish through the hose to the reef and watched to make sure they became acclimated to their new environment.

“It gives us a chance to monitor them because we release them on natural and man-made habitats that are less than 20 miles from the Coast,” said Michael Lee, who manages the hatchery at the aquaculture center for DMR.

The 65-day-old fish were released on My Wife II, a boat that was sunk in 2009 to be an artificial reef and attract fish. Two more releases are planned by the end of year, Lee said, bring the total number of snapper put in the Gulf at about 10,000.