by Captain Roy
How many times have you reeled up a fish only to realize that you can't keep it. It's too small or out of season and it's bloated and it's stomach is hanging out it's mouth. This condition is called barotrauma. The volume of a fish's swim bladder can triple when reeled in from depths as shallow as 60 feet. Even when reeling in from deeper depths the greatest percentage change in volume occurs from 1 to 2 atmospheres of pressure, which is about 66 feet and up. Signs of barotrauma include protrusion of the stomach from the fish's mouth (this is NOT the swim bladder), bulging eyes, bloated belly and distended intestines. Different species will react differently. If you see any or all of these signs, the fish will probably need help descending, but sometimes the signs are not readily apparent. Only fish that are unable to swim back down should be subjected to additional handling. If the fish is actively fighting and attempting to swim down when it is brought to the surface it may not need help descending. It's a good idea to keep a landing net on board so that a fish that starts down, but floats back up can be rescued and sent back down with a descending device. Practice and experience will help you make the best decision. Fish descending is an option of last resort, used only when a deep water fish cannot get back down on its own.
I personally am not a fan of the venting tool even though it does work, however I have literally stabbed fish to death trying to get them back down. Using the venting tool requires a lot of handling to lay the fish on its side, find the spot and poke a hole it and hope it's the right spot and releases the gas. This handling of the fish can damage the protective "slime" coating that keeps the fish healthy. Handling can be minimized by using a Lipper device to hold the fish while removing the hook. After the hook is removed a descending device, the Fish Saver, is inserted through the thin skin under the fish's jaw and out its mouth. A weight is attached to the device that already has a retrieval line attached and the weight and fish is lowered overboard. The weight upends the fish and quickly descends the fish back to the bottom. The fish is re-compressed, resuscitated and released unharmed. NOTE: fish do not necessarily need to go all the way to the bottom to be released. For fish caught in 200 feet or less- a depth of approximately 75 feet ( or more if you want) will return them safely. For our deep dropping fishermen- we release our fish at 200-300 feet with great success. For videos of the Fish Saver Device working to release fish CLICK HERE.
Currently Florida Sea Grant and NOAA are testing several descending devices. Recent research on the US West Coast on rock fish caught as deep as 300 feet show that they can survive if quickly returned to the bottom. While more research is needed to assess the long term effects of fish descending devices for Gulf and Atlantic species, initial effectiveness of the gear looks promising in increasing the survival rates of fish that wouldn't otherwise survive. I personally believe that it is the recreational fisherman responsibility to make every effort to protect our fish stocks by returning fish to the bottom instead of watching them float away and die needlessly. This was the reason I developed the Fish Saver Device.
My thanks to Florida Sea Grant for providing information for this article.
Eat your catch, keep only what you need and keep our oceans clean,