Simple Device Could Help Fishermen Save Deep-Dwelling Fish

MOREHEAD, N.C. – Snapper and grouper fishermen would equip their boats with a portable device to help deep-water fish survive when they’re caught, under a proposal now being considered by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

The rapid pressure change as deep-dwelling fish are pulled from the ocean causes gas and swelling, known as barotrauma – and when the bycatch fish are released, they often don’t survive it. Captain Jimmy Hull, who fishes commercially off the Florida coast and is vice-chair of the Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel to the South Atlantic, says descending devices can prevent this and help keep fish populations healthy.

“They work very well. They’re very simple,” says Hull. “What I use is a weighted, inverted hook with a line on it. I use different size weights for different-size fish. The bigger the fish the bigger the weight I gotta use. We put ’em back down on the bottom, and pull the descending device up, and it unhooks off that fish’s lip, and they swim off and survive.”

In the South Atlantic, more than 7.5 million black sea bass died after release between 2012 and 2016, according to federal data. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council oversees ocean fisheries from North Carolina to Florida’s east coast. It’s taking public comments on the proposal until May 10.

Jeffrey Buckel is a professor at the North Carolina State University Center for Marine Sciences and Technology who studies fish mortality rates. He points out another way to help fish survive catch-and-release involves piercing the side of the fish to let gas out before releasing it.

Buckel says researchers are studying survival rates for fish that are pierced versus those that have been descended.

“And so, what I’ve seen locally is that folks are more willing to use the venting tool, so where they’re actually using a needle or something to allow the gas to escape,” says Buckel. “So, they puncture through the side of fish to release the gases out of the swim bladder and then, that allows the fish to swim down.”

Buckel says for recreational fishermen, the safer option would be to use the descending device. If approved, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council would monitor the use of descending devices to gauge the regulation’s effectiveness at helping fish populations recover.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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