For the next two years, a team of researchers studying red snapper — the sweet and nutty star of seafood menus that also happens to be at the center of a heated regulatory battle — will do the seemingly impossible: Count the number of fish swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.

The $10 million study, meant to provide an independent tally for fishermen around the gulf, may ultimately offer the largest fish survey ever performed, and lead to more accurate counting tools for the complex job of assessing fish stocks. It’s also a allowing a few powerful ones to control lucrative catch limits traded like shares in the stock market.

“It’s a very touchy subject,” said Bob Spaeth, former owner of the Madeira Beach Seafood Co. on Florida’s Gulf Coast and executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association. “We have some unintended consequences.”

Red snapper once filled the gulf and supplied an industry that made fried, grilled or blackened snapper a staple at seafood restaurants and markets. But by the 1980s, the population had dropped to unsustainable numbers, with an absence of long-lived adults, which can live to age 50. That spawned years of shifting regulations, scrutinized stock assessments and debates between commercial and recreational fishermen who were regulated differently.

Meanwhile, prices soared and counterfeit fish abounded. In 2004, students at the University of North Carolina playing around with new DNA techniques discovered that 77 percent of fish sold as snapper were actually something else.

“It became just a real conundrum. And it’s not a scientific issue. It’s a management issue,” said University of Florida fishery scientist Will Patterson, who is assembling a fleet of remote-controlled underwater vehicles and other tools as part of the research team that includes Texas A&M, Louisiana State, the University of Southern Alabama, University

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