When fishing in the ocean, the plan usually isn’t for fish tossed back in to become an easy meal for sharks or dolphins roaming nearby, but that can be the case. Advocates for descending devices hope those creations can provide second and third chances for fish to continue on their way after getting reeled in and released.
“It works, and it works so well — what I would tell a group here is you not only have the opportunity to do something good for a fishery, I hope when we finish you’ll have an obligation — you’ll feel obliged to do it,” said Al Segars, a retired veterinarian with the S.C. Wildlife Federation who worked with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources for 20 years.
Segars was on hand last week at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division to conduct a workshop on descending devices and had 10 of the SeaQualizer brand devices to hand out for free to attendees, but a reporter from The News was the only person to show up.
He explained the thinking behind the development of descending devices with a hypothetical involving a fishing party near the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. During this expedition, red snapper season’s closed, but lo, a red snapper takes the bait.
“So, that’s considered a discard, and to me, that is criminal to call that fish a discard,” Segars said. “An adult female red snapper can produce 75 million eggs per year. Not only are you going to lose that fish if you don’t save it, you’re also going to lose the reproductive potential that fish has, for generations to come.”
The point of the descending device is to get the fish back down to depth and reverse the effects of barotrauma, so it survives the catch to live another day.
“The more you can do to minimize the time of that fish on the deck, and get him back in the water, the better your chances of survival,” Segars said.
When offshore fishing, inevitably, sharks arrive looking for an easy meal. A fish tossed back in, which is suffering the effects of barotrauma, might linger near the surface while unable to swim properly, making it a tasty treat for a passing shark or a dolphin.
Not only does the fish’s swim bladder expand, air goes into other tissues, including scales. Other signs of barotrauma are bulging eyes and the stomach poking out of the fish’s mouth, which can be common sights after reeling in fish from depth.
“Historically, our best tool was to vent these fish, decompress the bladder, and certainly that helps,” Segars said. “A lot of times, that’ll work. And that was our best practice before these descending devices.”
However, a lot of tools on hand on a boat for such decompression might be dirty when used, and there’s not exactly a ’strike here to relieve pressure’ label, so someone might damage the fish’s other organs while trying to decompress the swim bladder.
Filmed use of descending devices shows that as the fish goes back down through the water, barotrauma effects begin to reverse, like eyes returning to their normal condition, stomach sliding back into place.
“So, in 60 seconds, you’ve changed that from a dead fish to a completely healthy fish that’s going to survive to spawn, you’re going to be able to catch it another day — your kids, your grandkids,” Segars said. “Basically, you’re impacting the population of that species.”
A study conducted in the Gulf of Mexico shows that if you don’t do anything with the fish, about half die, but Segars said from his own experience he thinks the percentage is higher than that. With the descending devices, the study showed around 20 percent mortality. A study by Texas A&M showed that at 100 feet, there was 100 percent survival for red snapper, and 83 percent survival at 200 feet.
Of course, offshore fishing is a heavily regulated endeavor, and it’s important for people to know what kind of fish they’ve snagged, whether they can keep it if they want to, and what definitely needs to be returned to the water. There are mobile phone apps for this — Segars pointed to the Fish Rules app, which contains real-life photos, not artist’s renderings — of different fish species, along with all the specifics for federal and state waters along the entire Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Also, an issue that routinely becomes an area of conflict during federal fishery management council meetings is fish populations, especially regarding red snapper. Fishers tend to come with statements from experience that this fish or that has a healthy population and harvesting should be allowed. Pushback tends to come from scientists who say the data’s not conclusive enough.
One way to address this problem is by more and better data. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council advocates for use of at least two different apps, MyFishCount and SAFMC Release, the latter of which is specifically for scamp grouper. The MyFishCount app allows you to enter in all manner of data for fish both kept and released, along with photo upload ability and identification assistance. It also provides anglers with a way to state they weren’t able to fish on a given day in the season and explain why, which can and has led in the past to extended seasons.
Carolyn Belcher, chief of marine fisheries for CRD, explained in August how that agency uses MyFishCount data for the red snapper fishery.
“Anglers have an opportunity to be citizen scientists by providing red snapper data,” Belcher said at the time. “During the last mini-season, with the help of anglers CRD biologists examined 122 carcasses ranging in age from 1 to 19 years with approximately 95 percent younger than 14.”
That data’s combined with data from other states to determine future population assessments.