Council Approves Management Measures to Help Improve Survival of Released Fish

Requirements for descending devices and other best practices supported by fishing community


(NEWSLETTER - Fall 2019)

New measures designed to improve survival of released fish and encourage the use of best fishing practices, approved by members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in September have received wide-spread support. Individual fishermen, as well as members of the Council’s Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel, industry representatives, and environmental organizations, have continued to support the Council in development of Snapper Grouper Regulatory Amendment 29.


Photo courtesy of Emily Muehlstein

If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, new regulations would require fishermen to have a descending device readily available for use when fishing for species in the snapper grouper management complex from a vessel, as well as modify current hook requirements. The regulations would apply to private recreational anglers and federally permitted for-hire and commercial fishermen operating in federal waters off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and the Atlantic coast of Florida. The requirements may go into effect sometime in 2020. It would be the first time such measures have been required in federal waters in the U.S.


“The American Sportfishing Association and Keep Florida Fishing are thrilled that the (Council) approved Amendment 29,” said Kellie Ralston, Southeast Fisheries Policy Director for the American Sportfishing Association. “Being good stewards of our fisheries is critical to ensure that Florida continues to be the “Fishing Capital of the World.” The use of descending devices will help us achieve that goal by responsible management of our snapper grouper stocks not only in Florida, but throughout the South Atlantic region,” explained Ralston.


The Council received over 100 online written comments from individuals supporting the measures and also encouraging strong outreach campaigns. “As sportsmen we should do all we can to reduce the amount of dead discards,” writes Mick Fisher, a recreational fisherman from Mt. Pleasant, SC. “The health of our entire fishery depends on it.” Fisher noted that recreational anglers often don’t know how to properly use a descending device, “let alone a venting tool.” “Fisherman education on best practices will be a vital key in the success of this amendment,” explained Fisher. Regulatory Amendment 29 includes both an Outreach component and a Research and Monitoring Plan.


Photo courtesy of Miss Judy Charters

As fish stocks recover, including red snapper, fishermen express continued concern about regulations that result in increased numbers of released fish that do not survive. Some fish die due to foul hooking (hooking the fish in the stomach or throat), injuries caused by barotrauma (injury that occurs when internal gases in the fish expand when brought up quickly from depth), and predation. Studies have shown that the use of descending devices to quickly get the fish back down to depth improves the chances of survival by allowing recompression and helping fish avoid predation. Venting tools may also be used to treat fish suffering from barotrauma and are effective when used properly. According to one study cited in the amendment, red snapper that were surface released (non-vented and non-descended) were three times as likely to die compared to descended fish and 1.9 times as likely to die compared to vented fish. The use of descending devices to rapidly return fish to depth has shown to be effective for deep-water species such as snowy grouper, speckled hind, and other snapper grouper species.

It is the Council’s intent that descending devices are available for use when on board and that the devices are used only when a fish shows signs of barotrauma, such as bulging eyes, stomach extending from its mouth, and distended intestines.


Hook Modifications

Currently, the use of non-stainless-steel circle hooks is required when fishing with natural baits for snapper grouper species north of 28 degrees north latitude (slightly south of Melbourne Beach, FL). New regulations would add the use of non-offset circle hooks to the current requirement. Non-offset hooks have been shown to make it easier to dehook a fish and may minimize handling time and injury to the fish. The amendment would also require that all hooks used for targeting snapper grouper species in the South Atlantic region be non-stainless-steel so that hooks will degrade faster and fish that are gut hooked could theoretically have a greater chance of survival.


Defining a Descending Device

The Council had much discussion on how to best define a descending device. Descending devices can range from simple, inexpensive weighted hooks, to upside-down weighted milk crates, to more expensive devices available through the retail market that attach to a fish’s mouth and release at certain depths.

Council members weighed input from its Law Enforcement Advisory Panel that recommended the definition be as specific as possible for enforcement purposes, with the Council’s intent to allow the use of multiple options for descending devices, minimize costs to fishermen, and allow flexibility in development of new designs. The discussion and wording of the definition continued in September when the Council finally decided on the following definition of a descending device for Regulatory Amendment 29:

For the purpose of this requirement, “descending device” means an instrument to which is attached a minimum of a 16-oz weight and a length of line that will release the fish at the depth from which the fish was caught or a minimum of 50-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.

“While the long-term goal of a healthy fisherywill require an array of management approaches, we appreciate the Council’s action to increase survivability of released fish through Regulatory Amendment 29,” said Mary Conley, Southeast Marine Conservation Director for The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Earlier this year, TNC initiated a pilot recreational fishing project with Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary and the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation to engage local anglers and charter captains around best fishing practices, including use of descending devices within the Sanctuary.

“The Conservancy agrees that defining descending device using ‘performance standards’ rather than specifying makes and models is appropriate and will allow for individual choice and potential innovation,” explained Conley.


Best Practices

Ensuring a fish survives once captured and released involves more than just the use of descending devices or venting tools. Having a plan before you leave the dock with the proper gear on board is a first step. Once on the water, avoid areas where multiple fish are caught that must be released. Move on. It may seem like common sense, but this “best practice” is a great way to minimize release mortality.

Determining if a fish is suffering from barotrauma is an important factor. No signs of barotrauma? No need to use a descending device or venting tool. Minimize handling by using a dehooker and return the fish to the water as quickly as possible. A recent Recreational Release Mortality Symposium involving private anglers, charter captains, and headboat operators, as well as scientists and researchers, addressed best fishing practices and emphasized that “best practices” including proper handling of fish are important factors in reducing release mortality.

Learn more about best practices and how you can take action to reduce release mortality at:


Best Fishing Practices Tutorial


Fish Handling and Gear – Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission


Catch and Release Best Practices- NOAA Fisheries






Recreational Release Mortality Symposium

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council recently hosted a Recreational Release Mortality Symposium with the goal of reducing discard mortality from recreational fishing efforts. The objective of the symposium was to create an action plan for the recreational fishery to promote the use of barotrauma mitigation tools, enhance data collection efforts, and incorporate the results into stock assessments and management. Read the Report


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