Regulations Proposed to Help Reduce Release Mortality

(NEWSLETTER - Summer 2019)


Regulations Proposed to Help Reduce Release Mortality

Council scheduled to approve measures during September Meeting


When heading offshore on a bottom fishing trip, the number of fish released is likely to exceed the number of fish that make it into the cooler. Bag limits, size limits, spawning season closures, and other regulations to prevent overharvest lead to fish being released. The number of those fish that will live to reproduce once they are released is often up to the actions of an individual fisherman. From the time a fish breaks the water, the fisherman must quickly assess the species and estimate its length, get the fish to the boat, remove the hook, and measure the fish if it is close to the legal size limit. Perhaps they snap a few photos. The fisherman must also assess if the fish is showing signs of barotrauma (injury that occurs when gases expand inside the fish’s body due to changes in pressure from being reeled up from deeper water). If so, the use of a descending device or venting tool is crucial to improving the survivability of the fish that is released.



The Council is scheduled to approve measures through Snapper Grouper Regulatory Amendment 29 during its September 2019 meeting. The Amendment aims to help ensure fishermen use Best Fishing Practices to improve the likelihood that released fish survive.


Reducing Mortality Due to Barotrauma

Regulatory Amendment 29 includes a regulation requiring a descending device be on board a vessel when fishing for or possessing snapper grouper species and that the device be rigged and ready for use. The requirement would apply to private recreational fishermen, for-hire/charter, and commercial fishermen.


A descending device is designed to assist a fish experiencing barotrauma get back down to depths where the conditions may be reversed as external water pressure increases. The fish’s swim bladder may expand as it is reeled up from deeper water, causing the fish to float on the surface once it is released. Other signs of barotrauma include stomachs protruding from the fish’s mouth, bulging eyes, and/or intestines extending from the anus. These conditions are most common in fish reeled up from depths greater than 90 feet and become more severe the greater the depth.


The use of a descending device helps improve survival of these fish by quickly returning them to depth. Reducing the number of “floaters” also makes the fish less vulnerable to predation. Studies conducted on red snapper demonstrated that the use of descending devices at 30 meters (98 feet) decreased release mortality from 33% to 0% and for fish released at 60 meters (197 feet) mortality was decreased from 83% to 17-0%.

Learn more about the signs of barotrauma and take the online Best Fishing tutorial at:



Use of Circle Hooks

Fishermen are currently required to use non-stainless-steel circle hooks north of 28 degrees north latitude (approximately 25 miles south of Cape Canaveral, FL) when fishing for snapper grouper species with hook-and-line gear and natural baits in federal waters. Regulatory Amendment 29 would take this requirement a step further by requiring that these hooks be non-offset non-stainless-steel circle hooks. Studies comparing the use of offset versus non-offset circle hooks reported that offset circle hooks are harder to remove and caused more bleeding. Reducing the stress on a fish as it is dehooked will help improve survivability.


The use of non-stainless-steel hooks would also be required when fishing for snapper grouper species in federal waters throughout the South Atlantic, including south of 28 degrees north latitude. Currently, circle hooks are not required when fishing south of the line due to concerns with how the yellowtail snapper fishery operates and the effective use of j-hooks. Council members also heard from fishermen during its June meeting in Stuart, FL, about the need for use of j-hooks on multi-hook rigs when drift fishing off of Southeast Florida.


What’s Next?

The Council’s Snapper Grouper Committee will discuss various types of commercially available and homemade descending devices during its upcoming September meeting and provide direction to the Council. Public hearings for Regulatory Amendment 29 were held earlier this year. The Council also solicited input from its Law Enforcement Advisory Panel, Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel, Information and Education Advisory Panel, and its Scientific and Statistical Committee. The definition of a descending device in the draft amendment was modified based on input from its advisory panels.


Council members have emphasized the need to provide consistent outreach and education efforts for Regulatory Amendment 29 and Best Fishing Practices, including the use of descending devices. During its September meeting the Council will continue discussion on the best approach for outreach efforts and provide guidance to staff. The Council is scheduled to approve Regulatory Amendment 29 for Secretarial Review in September. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, measures in the amendment could be implemented in late 2020.


Photo courtesy of the American Sportfishing Association

Note: The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is hosting a Release Mortality Workshop Oct. 7-9, 2019. Details will be available at:

[Back to e-Newsletter - South Atlantic Update, Summer 2019]