Stepping Up by Sending Them Back Down

By Chris Horton, Senior Director of Midwestern States and Fisheries Program 

Accountability is a word that often gets thrown around in the ongoing feud between recreational and commercial anglers. For me, watching and participating in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper war for almost a decade, one of the most frustrating aspects has been how some commercial fishing and environmental organizations like to paint recreational red snapper anglers as “unaccountable.” 

Unaccountable? We abide by the regulations to use circle hooks, only keep two fish per day that are at least 16-inches long, and fish within the seasons that are set, yet we were deemed “unaccountable” when we caught more fish more quickly because there were more fish than a theoretical computer model predicted there would be. It was not the collection of individual anglers that was unaccountable, but rather the federal system of management that was unaccountable to anglers. Fortunately, the states’ recreational harvest data collection programs are much more accurate and accountable to anglers, and with the states assuming responsibility for managing us for the last two years, things have gotten much better for Gulf red snapper anglers.

However, just because things are better doesn’t mean that they can’t be improve beyond that. Thanks to Congressmen Garret Graves and Jared Huffman’s introduction of H.R. 5126, the “Direct Enhancement of Snapper Conservation and the Economy through Novel Devices (DESCEND) Act of 2019,” anglers have another chance to “step up” on behalf of our fisheries resources. The DESCEND Act of 2019 would require commercial and recreational fishermen to possess a descending device rigged and ready for use or venting tool when fishing for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Why are descending devices or venting tools important? Most fish have swim bladders, and when a fish swims up or down, the amount of gas in the swim bladder decreases or increases to maintain neutral buoyancy. Reef fish like red snapper, gray trigger fish, vermillion snapper, gag grouper, etc., are often caught near the bottom. Typically, when that bottom is more than 100-feet deep, a condition called barotrauma can occur when the fish is rapidly brought to the surface. At sea level, the air that surrounds us presses down on our bodies at 14.5 pounds per square inch (psi). For every 33 feet in depth of water, that pressure increases by another 14.5 psi, or one additional “atmosphere”. At 100-feet, the pressure is three times greater than at the surface.  When a fish is brought up to the surface rapidly, the decreasing external pressure of the water as they get shallower allows the gases in their body to expand more rapidly than the swim bladder can compensate, putting pressure on internal organs and increasing their buoyancy. When released, the increased internal pressure of the gases makes it difficult, if not impossible, to swim back down to their originating depth where their internal gases would return to equilibrium with the pressure of the surrounding water. 

Descending devices are non-invasive mechanisms that can quickly return fish to a depth using a weight and some sort of release. Venting tools actually puncture the abdomen wall (and swim bladder if not already ruptured) and allow gases to escape. While descending devices are preferred, especially for anglers not experienced with venting techniques, research has shown that using a venting tool does increase a fish’s chance of survival when caught from depth, especially for larger fish. 

Rightfully so, an estimate of post-release mortality, whether it’s from releasing undersized fish or fish that we catch during a closed season, figures into stock assessments and counts against our quota-based fisheries. By decreasing the number of fish that die after release, we can increase population abundance and convert some of the fish that would have died after release to a legally harvested fish.

I’ve heard some Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council members say that we must reduce our numbers because “there are too many anglers and not enough fish.” While I disagree, as the popularity of saltwater fishing continues to grow, and modern technologies increase our effectiveness of catching fish, we need to do all we can to ensure the long-term health of our marine fisheries resources. If that means I have to spend a few extra minutes to ensure my released reef fish survive, I’m happy to do it. 

Why would we support a bill that requires additional restrictions on Gulf reef fish anglers? Because we are accountable, it’s the right thing to do for the future of our fisheries resources, and the use of these devices will lead to more fish to catch and healthier fisheries down the road. 


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