During a recent trip off the coast of Louisiana, I became an outlaw.
Anglers in the Gulf of Mexico must by law carry a venting tool; they use this to poke a hollow needle through the abdomen of barotraumatized fish (those “inflated” by pressure changes when reeled up from deep water) before releasing them.
We began the day following the letter of that law, with experienced hands carefully inserting the needle and trying to gently push trapped gases out of the fish.
The fact is, no matter how carefully one does this, some fish still float away to die.
Some dive down a bit but then bob back up, helpless from the air still trapped inside them.
And those that don’t die immediately could well expire afterward from infection or damage to internal organs from the needle.
As anyone who fishes the northern Gulf knows, red snapper now teem in these waters. Even when trying to target other species, anglers almost can’t help but hook snapper.
After dooming several of these bright-red floaters, I made the transition from murderer to lawbreaker.
I did so with a small device, produced by Miami-based tackle retailer Capt.
Harry’s, called a SeaQualizer.
Harry’s Jeffrey Liederman and two friends, the SeaQualizer resembles a small Bogagrip-type release tool.
It simply clips to the jaw of a barotraumatized fish and, with a few pounds of lead attached, is lowered until it snaps open and releases the fish at a depth the angler presets from 50 to 150 feet.
Rather than venting the snapper, we started lowering them to recompress — and swim back to bottom.
We couldn’t actually see that happening, but unlike many of the fish we’d vented, these didn’t float back up to the surface.
I could see what was happening in my mind’s eye, because I’d watched a video that Liederman et al. made with a GoPro actually showing snowy grouper, caught at 350 feet, lowered to 150 feet, and released.
As each fish neared that release point, you could watch the recompression taking place: Eyes no longer bugged out; the stomach no longer protruded from the mouth (everted by expanded gases); and best of all, the fish that were immobilized at the start of the descent now kicked and struggled strongly.
The instant the SeaQualizer’s jaws opened, each grouper swam quickly down and out of sight.
Although these little gadgets were still in production as this issue went to press, by the time you read this, they should be available at CaptHarry.com.
Alternatively, though not quite as convenient, you can easily make a drop weight using a large naked, barbless lead-head jig with a few pounds of lead added.
Tie a heavy braided line to the back (bend) of the hook: At 100 to 150 feet, give a yank and the fish should be on its way home.
In fact, Australians have been using drop weights to release fish for years. (Review recent Australian studies on recompression methods at sportfishingmag.com/barotrauma.)
So, back to being a lawbreaker.
Since 2008, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has required recreational anglers to carry venting tools for releasing snapper, grouper, amberjack and other largely demersal predators.
This ruling remains despite an increasing number of studies showing that venting harms rather than helps fish. Recently, a study by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced in large red letters: “Do NOT vent or ‘fizz’ rockfish” as “this practice leads to … eventual death.
Many tens of thousands of red snapper are released by anglers in the Southeast each year.
In most regions, federal scientists estimate about 40 percent of them die.
Were anglers required to use release methods that facilitated the survival of most of those fish now presumed to die, that would be a plus, not only for the health of the resource, but it could allow longer seasons (or in some cases, any season).
It’s way past time for the Gulf Council to rescind a bad law. All management councils should consider recommending recompression-release methods.