When Should Anglers Vent or Descend Bottom Fish?

Understand when and where to use descending devices to help fish survive release, such as this red snapper.
Courtesy Return ‘Em Right

If you are an avid offshore angler, you’ve been hearing a lot about venting and descending requirements lately. In July of 2020, a rule became effective that required descending devices to be rigged and ready to use when fishing for or possessing species in the snapper or grouper complex in South Atlantic federal waters (beyond 3 miles out). Last January, the DESCEND Act went into effect in the Gulf of Mexico requiring either a venting tool or descending device to be rigged and ready to use when fishing for reef fish in federal waters (beyond 9 miles out). 

More recently, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) passed a rule requiring either a venting tool or descending device be rigged and ready to use when fishing for reef fish in state waters of Florida (up to 3 miles out on the east coast and up to 9 miles out on the west coast). Additionally, this rule requires use when a fish is showing signs of barotrauma. Similarly, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) passed a similar rule that will go into effect September 1, 2023. 

These rules are great to bring awareness to barotrauma, venting and descending meant to improve the survival of reef fish caught by recreational anglers. Additionally, the consistency between state and federal regulations can make the rules easier to understand for anglers.

But, anglers can do more harm than good if they are venting or descending fish where barotrauma isn’t an issue, or they are doing so incorrectly. The key to making the most of these new regulations is understanding when and where to use these devices and help fish survive release. After all, the purpose of these regulations is to save more fish.

Use the tips below to make the most of your release gear and reduce the number of floaters on your next trip offshore. 

Bring the Right Tools for the Job

Bring extra weights to ensure you have enough heaviness to descend a fish. One pound of weight typically descends up to five pounds of fish.
Courtesy Return ‘Em Right

This might seem like a no-brainer, but I am continually surprised at how many people go offshore and either forget their release tools or don’t have sufficient tools. So what tools should you bring? A descending device will cover all of your legal requirements, but I suggest every angler carry and know how to use both venting tools and descending devices for two main reasons:

1) The descending device is the preferred method of release because it is the easiest to use and safest for the fish. However, if you find yourself in a situation where multiple fish come to the deck at the same time that you have to release, it is better to vent the fish and release them quickly instead of waiting for the descending device to be retrieved from depth.

2) Having a backup device will keep you compliant while allowing you to continue to successfully release fish if you happen to lose one while fishing. Lastly, bring extra weights to ensure you have enough weight to descend a fish. I find that one pound of weight typically descends up to five pounds of fish. 

Be Prepared Before Fish Hit the Deck

Be ready to go with your descending gear. Have it all set up on a spare rod and reel. Most reef fish start to experience barotrauma at depths of 50 to 65 feet. Pictured, a mutton snapper ready to head back to the depths.
Courtesy Return ‘Em Right

You should know when barotrauma occurs. The onset and severity of barotrauma can vary by conditions and species, so there is not a single depth that requires anglers to use their devices. Some species, such as hogfish, may float off in depths of 30 to 40 feet. Meanwhile, anglers fishing for red snapper might not experience barotrauma until depths over 60 or 70 feet. Most reef fish start to experience barotrauma at depths of 50 to 65 feet or greater. This means you should rig your release gear before dropping a bait down if you are bottom fishing at or beyond this depth. Once you surpass 100 feet of depth, more often than not, you will need to use your venting tool or descending device to get your catch back down. 

Know the Fish Signs of Barotrauma

An obvious sign of barotrauma is bulging eyes. Also, this red grouper’s swim bladder inflated internally and pushed the stomach out of its mouth. Don’t ever puncture the fish’s stomach.
Courtesy Return ‘Em Right

The most commonly recognized symptom of barotrauma is the fish’s stomach protruding from its mouth. Many anglers think this is the swim bladder, but the fish’s swim bladder inflates internally and actually pushes the stomach out of the mouth. You never want to vent or pop the stomach coming out of the mouth. Other symptoms include eyes bulging, intestinal protrusion, a bloated stomach and even bubbling or distorted scales. Air can expand so much inside a fish that it forces its way through the skin and out under the scales causing them to bubble. 

The deeper you fish, typically the more severe the signs of barotrauma will be. It’s important to remember, even if you don’t see any of these external symptoms in your catch, the fish may still need help getting back down. Gently squeezing the stomach of a fish and feeling if it’s firm is a helpful way to tell if there is excess air in the body cavity. If the stomach feels firm, or if you release a fish and it’s kicking but struggling to overcome the buoyancy, use a descending device and send them back down.

Nick Haddad is the sustainable fisheries communications manager at Florida Sea Grant and the Return ‘Em Right project. If you are unfamiliar with barotrauma, refer to Salt Water Sportsman’s previous article on how to improve reef fish survival and check out ReturnEmRight.org to learn best release practices and even receive free release gear. 

The post When Should Anglers Vent or Descend Bottom Fish? appeared first on Salt Water Sportsman.

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