South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

Best Fishing Practices

Since we are all invested in the future of fisheries in the South Atlantic, we each share a responsibility to use best fishing practices when catching and releasing fish.

Whether you are releasing a fish because it’s too small, out of season, or you have reached your retention limit, follow these helpful tips below to improve that fish’s chance of survival.

Below you will find a series of resources provided by fishermen, non-governmental organizations, state agencies, and researchers, all in an effort to promote the use of best fishing practices. Be sure to check out the upcoming regulations tab further down the page to see what requirements are now in effect for federal waters of the South Atlantic.

Best practices for releasing fish

Plan Ahead:
Expect to release fish on any given trip and prepare the equipment necessary to do so quickly, including any camera or phone you will be using to take pictures of your catch.

Releasing Fish:
If needed, use a tool (dehookersrecompression tools) to minimize handling

Handling Fish:
Use knotless, rubberized landing nets and rubberized gloves to avoid removing the slime layer from their body. Keep the fish horizontal, support the body, and don’t drop the fish

Appropriate Gear:
Use gear suited to the size of fish that you are trying to catch. Use circle hooks where recommended and be aware that fishing techniques are different from “J” style hooks.

Landing Fish:
Don’t play fish to exhaustion

Develop the skills to target the size and species you desire

Best practices for deep water releases

Fish caught in deep water may be suffering from barotrauma, the expansion of gases after rapidly reeled up from depth. This condition often makes it difficult for a fish to swim back down. Generally, fish caught deeper than 30 feet will suffer some effects.

Assess Condition While Reeling in Fish:
Signs of barotrauma include:

  • Sluggish swimming
  • eyes bulging (“pop eye”)
  • Stomach protruding from mouth
  • Bloated mid section

If fish appears normal, release it without removing it from the water.


Rapidly returning fish to depth is the method of choice for returning barotrauma affected fish. A variety of tools are on the market, including descending devices, release weights, baskets, etc.


Use established guidelines when choosing to vent fish.

Learn more here:

Note: the fish’s stomach may protrude from its mouth. Do NOT puncture the stomach.

Return to Depth:

Return fish to the depth of capture. If catching fish at very deep depths, returning them as deep as possible will dramatically improve survival.

Recognizing barotrauma

Barotrauma is the rapid expansion of gases in a fish as it is quickly reeled up from depth. This expansion of gases can typically cause a number of symptoms which are important to be able to identify. Photos courtesy of Bryan Fluech.


Descending device

According to the regulations in federal waters of the South Atlantic, a descending device is:

  • an instrument to which is attached a minimum of a 16 ounce weight and a length of line that will release the fish at the depth from which the fish was caught or a minimum of 60 feet.
  • The descending device attaches to the fish’s mouth or is a container that will hold the fish. The device MUST be capable of releasing the fish automatically, by the actions of the operator of the device, or by allowing the fish to escape on its own.
  • Since minimizing surface time is critical to increasing survival, descending devices shall be readily available for use while engaged in fishing

Take a look at some available descending devices by visiting FishSmart and reviewing the table and resources below.

Weighted Hooks

Attached to an easily accessible, separate rod and reel or handline capable of reeling up a sizable lead with weight sufficient to descend targeted fish.


  • Captain Roy’s Fish Saver Device
  • Shelton Fish Descender
  • Homemade weighted hook.

Lip Clamp Devices

Attached to an easily accessible, separate rod and reel or handline capable of reeling up a sizable lead with weight sufficient to descend targeted fish.


  • Seaqualizer
  • RokLees EcoLeeser
  • Blacktip Catch and Release Tool

Box Type Devices

Attached to length of rope sufficient to descend fish to a minimum of 60 feet or, ideally, the depth of capture.


  • Inverted utility crate with a mounted weight
  • Recompression cage with mounted weights.

How to Make your Own Descending Device

Descending Devices Work

Check out this great video for proof that descending devices do work when releasing fish showing signs of barotrauma:

Make sure that you have your descending device readily available! “Readily available” is defined as being attached to a designated rod and reel that is easily accessible at all times in case fish that need to be released are caught.


If you choose to vent a fish rather than returning it to depth using a descending device, be sure to follow established protocols for venting properly. Venting a fish improperly can cause fatal damage to internal organs. 

Venting Tool Examples:

  • Florida Sea Grant Venting Tool Kit (discontinued, but still found at some retailers)
  • 16-gauge hypodermic needle with plunger removed


Dehooking tools are required when fishing for or possessing snapper grouper species in federal waters of the South Atlantic. Save your fingers AND improve the survivorship of released fish.

What do you need to have on board to be in compliance?

  • At least one dehooking device is required and must be used as needed to remove hooks embedded in South Atlantic snapper-grouper with minimum damage.
  • The hook removal device must be constructed to allow the hook to be secured and the barb shielded without re-engaging during the removal process.
  • The dehooking end must be blunt, and all edges rounded. The device must be of a size appropriate to secure the range of hook sizes and styles used in the South Atlantic snapper-grouper fishery.

Watch a video of a dehooking tool in use.

Hook Types

Hook type can influence the survivorship of released fish because certain hooks types are more likely to hook fish in the jaw. A jaw hooked fish is more likely to survive when released than a fish hooked in the stomach, eye, or gill. 

The code of federal regulations defines a circle hook as a fishing hook designed and manufactured so that the point is turned perpendicularly back to the shank to form a generally circular, or oval, shape.