Release ‘em right

A descending device will make sure this graysby grouper does not experience barotrauma when released. (Picture by SAFMC photo)

Anyone who has dropped to the bottom to bend a rod has experienced this situation before. You reel up a “short” grouper (or another species entirely) that can’t get back to the bottom by itself, due to barotrauma, or, as we used to call it, being “gassed up.”

Many times, you’ll actually see the fish completely distended, with their eyes and stomach protruding from where they would normally be. It’s not hard to see how this would be really uncomfortable for the fish, but it also creates a bit of an ethical dilemma for the angler. Regulations say to release, but most of the time, that crippled fish is going to be easy pickings for any predator in the area, as it has no way to correct for its swim bladder being bloated.

“Venting” the fish was the accepted method for a generation, however this technique was highly misunderstood. Many anglers unknowingly popped the fish’s stomach instead of piercing their swim bladder. Even when done correctly, release mortality was still high, defeating the purpose.

I used to give “shorts” time to decompress in the livewell before release, but I have no data on how well they fared afterwards. Not to mention, not every boat has a livewell, or one big enough to handle multiple grouper. Thankfully, a much better solution is coming into focus.

No harm done

When a scuba diver ascends too quickly, or holds their breath while doing so, the best treatment is immediate recompression to simulate the pressure at depth. This allows the body to stabilize.

The pressure is then slowly adjusted to help them adjust back to the pressure at the surface. It’s not hard to see that returning the fish to the pressure at which they were hooked is probably going to be the most effective at keeping that fish alive. Descending devices take the fish back down the route they came up and normalize that pressure immediately. While you may still have a tired fish from being caught, they don’t have to overcome their own distended swim bladder, which would otherwise be pulling them back towards the surface as they tried to swim down. Videos and tagging research on descending devices show exactly this. When the fish is returned to depth and released, they swim off with no visible damage from the experience.

Descending devices aren’t new. Years ago, I fished with a captain out of Panama City where red snapper and grouper were his two primary target species. Fish shy of the size limit were common on these trips, especially in the hard-hit areas closest to the beach. To handle these releases, the captain used a laundry basket with a weight in each corner and a stainless-steel eyelet in the bottom. When flipped upside down of its normal orientation, the eyelet was now on the top, and there was about 100 feet of anchor line attached to it. This way he could release several fish at a time, with the weights pulling the whole basket down through the water column. Eventually, these fish would become invigorated and just swim off, as the bottom of this assembly had nothing to keep them restrained. Fairly simple, but very effective. Bear in mind, this was years before any regulations on how these fish needed to be handled, and this was a completely voluntary action by a charter captain. Descending devices are good for the fishery.

It works

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) has gotten involved with this issue in the right way as well. A descending device is now required equipment on any vessel fishing for any species in the grouper/snapper complex, along with a dehooking device and non-offset, non-stainless steel circle hooks.

A number of descending devices are on the market now, and some are as complex as a lip clamp that releases when a certain pressure is met. Or you can make your own at home. The device must have at least 16 ounces of weight and 60 feet of line. This may not be enough for a lot of situations you run into offshore, but it’s a good start.

Some descending devices are complex, but anglers can also make their own.

Use of a descending device has now supplanted venting as the SAFMC’s Best Fishing Practice, meaning that they endorse it as the best way to release any bottomfish suspected to be suffering from barotrauma.

Additionally, the SAFMC has incorporated best fishing practices into their Citizen Science Program. The SAFMC Release project partners with anglers to gather information about their released grouper and red snapper using the free app SciFish. Data collected include descending device usage which helps better understand survival rates of released fish and contributes to more informed management.

If you are unclear as to how this really works or have doubts about how effective this method of releasing fish is, check out this link Julia Byrd at the SAFMC helped me navigate this issue while I was working on this month’s column, and the Council has done an excellent job of providing info about this practice. In addition to a list of ongoing research, a great video from NC State University of a deep water (200 feet) release of a red grouper shows (in real time) the fish compress back to its normal shape, begin to get its energy back, and finally swim back to the bottom when the lip clamp releases. I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate how effective these devices can be.

I’ll admit, sometimes I feel like certain regulations on saltwater fisheries are overreaching and unnecessary. I want to make it clear that this is NOT one of those times. Having seen the damage that can be caused to these fish by catching too many small fish, and no real good way to release them, using a descending device to me is a no-brainer. I never could get completely on board with venting, but I’m fully in support of using a descending device. It’s protecting the populations of fish that we want our kids to be able to catch, even if it is extra aggravating to that big barracuda that hangs out under your boat while you’re dropping down. He’ll be fine in the long run. He’ll just have to work a bit harder for his next meal.

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