Grouper and Snapper are being overfished, specifically in the South Atlantic waters, and the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of Florida aided in the steps it took to help prevent this from happening. Over the years, Snapper and Grouper have been caught in large quantities, generally higher than what is needed. After one’s bag limit has been reached, the rest should be released back into the ocean. While catch and release is good in theory, it can be dangerous to the bottom fish if not done properly.
Because of the rapid change in depth, these species of fish often suffer from barotrauma by being drawn to the surface too quickly. When they are released back into the ocean, in most cases, it is done suddenly instead of slowly. This sudden return to the water prevents the release of the gas buildup in the fish, making it impossible for them to reach their true depths, and in-turn, they die off. The records show over the years, Snapper and Grouper have especially been hit hard by this.
The introduction of the descending device ensures that Grouper and Snapper can make it back to their true depths and live to swim another day.
NOAA Fisheries Issues Final Ruling on Required Descending Device
To prevent regional disappearance of Grouper and Snapper species, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also known as NOAA, issued a final ruling. The ruling states that all recreational/entertainment and commercial vessels will require a descending device to be fitted to their ships. This decision applies to every vessel that wishes to catch Snapper and Grouper in South Atlantic Federal Waters. The ruling took effect on July 15th, 2020.
Read the full NOAA Ruling – HERE
What is a Descending Device?
A descending device is used to help the fish reach their natural depths to increase the likelihood of survival after release. It comes in the form of a fish elevator, mouth/lip clamp, or inverted hook that holds the fish until they get to the required depth.
How it Works
Each descending device consists of at least these three parts:
The fish is attached to the descending device. Devices generally use a mouth or lip clamp, or an inverted hook. If you use a homemade device, a popular choice is a weighted milk crate in which case there is no clamp or hook used. Weights attached to the bottom part of the device help it to sink and bring the fish with it, to the right depth.
After getting to the proper depth, the fish is set free. Based on the device chosen, the device is pulled up through the upper tab attached to the fishing rod.
What is Barotrauma and How Does this Device Help?
Barotrauma is an injury that arises from a quick change in pressure when a fish is yanked up to the surface from the deep. Going from the pressure in deep waters to the low pressure of being out of water facilitates detrimental gas buildup inside a fish’s body. To relate it to us humans, the effects of barotrauma are as severe, if not more dangerous, than a diver getting the bends. Humans can get to hospitals, but fish are defenseless. It is up to us anglers to release them back into the water in a way that allows for maximum survival.
The physical effects of barotrauma may include:
The descending device allows for the effects of barotrauma to reduce enough for the fish to be able to travel back down to their proper depth. Regardless of the device, the idea is for the fish to be forced down to at least 1/3 – ½ their depth and held their until they are well enough to slowly return to their natural depth. This gradual return balances the pressure of gases inside the fish with the dense pressure at intense depths.
Types of Descending Devices
There are 4 popular types of descending devices, one of which you can make on your own. The models are as follows:
- Shelton Fish Descender:
This type of descending device is a wire hook clip shaped like the letter S. The wire clip is attached directly to a bottom rig. The fish is attached to the device by gently being poked through the fish’s lower lip. Hooking to the bottom lip helps keep the fish’s mouth open. This allows for the water to flow across the gills and help with the bloating. Then, a precise weight is added to the other end of the rig that will drop the fish to the appropriate depth.
The Shelton Fish Descender is ideal for smaller fish like the Atlantic Black Sea Bass or Rockfish. The device type can handle multiple fish at once. To release, you quickly snap the line upward once you feel the fish wiggling to be let go.
- RokLees Descender Device:
Manufactured by EcoLeeser, the RokLees is less invasive than the Shelton Fish Descender. Its upper tab is outfitted with a rubber tip, created to help protect the fish’s lower lip. The upper tab is a sort of lip clamp instead of a puncturing hook. Once the fish is hooked up, gently raise the fish up and lower it down into the water. The weight attached to the lower tab will help force the fish down to a proper depth. The common rule is to drop the fish to at least 1/3 the depth from which you reeled it up.
To release the fish, like the Shelton Descender, jerk the rod upward once or twice at most. It is vital to ensure that both the upper and lower tabs are connected to a heavy-duty swivel before attaching the weight or line. These swivels allow for medium to large bottom fish to be released with this device.
The SeaQualizer is the most sophisticated of all the devices available currently. It makes use of pressure-activated release settings to detach its jaws from the fish’s mouth once it reaches the needed depth. The design is like the RokLees, in that it uses a lip clamp style instead of an inverted hook. In reference to this device, it is recommended to release the fish at ½ the distance from which you pulled it up.
The standard version of the device has settings to release at 50 ft., 100 ft., and 150 ft. The shallow version has settings for 30 ft., 50 ft., and 70 ft. The most in-depth setting is found on the deep-water SeaQualizer with a setting of 100 ft., 200 ft., and 300 ft.
To select the desired setting, you turn the plug at the back of the tool. There is no need for jerking the rod or trying the guess the right depth to release the fish, the SeaQualizer does all the work for you.
- Weighted Milkcrate:
For those who enjoy building their own devices, this simply consists of a rope, a milk crate, and dive weights. Each side of the crate should have one weight attached to it using zip ties, with a rope line added to the bottom. To use this style of descending device, put the fish inside the crate first. Then, place the crate overboard with the open side towards the water while making sure the fish remains in the crate (this may be a 2-person job).
You then let out an adequate line to take the fish to its natural depth, after which you stop and let the fish swim away. The best part? There are no hooks or clamps needed.
Other Ways to Increase the Survival of Catch & Released Fish
Deep sea fish ailed by barotrauma are not the only species that can die upon release. Any species of fish can be affected by and die because of the effects from injuries, exhaustion and the physiological stress from the hooks and being pulled out of their natural habitats.
While the use of descending devices became mandatory as of July 15th, 2020 for all South Atlantic fisherman looking to catch Snapper and Grouper, fishing responsibly is always best practice. There are many other ways to increase the survival rate of ANY fish being caught and released.
- Switch to circle hooks
Circle hooks are known to cause little damage to the tissues of the fish’s mouth. They are ideal for use as this increases the chances of survival.
For those making use of non-circle hooks, be sure to make use of a de-hooking device, especially if you find it difficult to remove the hook by hand. You should also start making use of non-barbed hooks or, at the very least, clip the barb before removing with on-deck pliers.
- Keeping larger fish submerged when removing the hook, if possible
When removing the hook from a larger fish, keep the fish submerged and, if not, remove the hook quickly while avoiding injury to the fish. Doing this with little injury to the fish ensures that the fish does not die of physical trauma or stress.
- Abstain from the use of gaffs
If you wish to release a fish, try avoiding the use of gaffs all together. This is because they obviously do a good deal of damage to the fish. In most cases, the use of a gaff just about guarantees death when released back into the water. If gaffed through the mouth, it is not likely the fish will be able to hunt or feed; while a gaff to any other part of the body means a decent sized hole, which is not likely to heal.
- Do not hold them vertically
Remember that a vertical position is unnatural to any fish. Therefore, the position places stress on the fish’s internal organs and displaces them. The fish should always be held horizontally using the lower jaw in one hand while the other hand supports the belly or tail. Additionally, several large fish end up tearing the ligaments that join their head and body if held upright and unsupported. The torn ligaments lead to an inability to swallow food, and they die slowly from starvation.
- How to revive exhausted fish
This can be done by placing a hand underneath the tail and using the other hand to hold the lower lip of the fish. If the fish is in good condition, simply lower it into the current headfirst. If not, compress the lower lip to open the jaw, then gently move the fish in a forward motion in the water. The rush of water through the mouth and gills should revive the fish. The moment the fish begins to try to swim away, release it.
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