Bill would require descending devices or venting tools for Gulf reef fishing

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Descending devices have reduced catch-and-release mortality rates by two thirds for some deepwater species. Photo by Adrian Gray.

Descending devices have reduced catch-and-release mortality rates by two thirds for some deepwater species. Photo by Adrian Gray.

A coalition of recreational fishing and boating groups is praising a bipartisan bill that would require commercial and recreational anglers to possess a descending device or venting tool when going after reef fish in Gulf of Mexico federal waters.

The Descend Act, which was introduced by Reps. Garrett Graves, R-La., and Jared Huffman, D-Calif., would help mortality rates in reef fish caught and released in deep Gulf water by using descending devices, according to the American Sportfishing Association.

When deep-water fish, or those in water deeper than 30 feet, are brought rapidly to the surface, they experience barotrauma — a condition where a buildup of gas pressure in their bodies makes it difficult or impossible to swim back down. If a fisherman releases the fish due to size, season or bag limit restrictions and the fish does not survive, this is a dead discard or wasted fish.

Fish caught deeper than 180 feet had a 100 percent mortality rate when they were released, but that rate dropped to around 37 percent when anglers used descending devices, according to Andrew Loftus, coordinator with FishSmart Red Snapper and Red Drum Conservation Project, a project launched by the ASA to promote best practices for releasing fish.

A descending device is a weighted hook, lip clamp, or box that will hold the fish while it is lowered to a sufficient depth to recover from the effects of barotrauma and release the fish. A venting tool is a sharpened, hollow device capable of penetrating the abdomen of a fish in order to release the excess gas pressure in the body cavity when a fish is retrieved from depth.

Possession of descending devices on board is required in other parts of the country, including several West Coast states and, starting next year pending final regulatory approval, in South Atlantic federal waters.

However, similar regulatory action in the Gulf of Mexico has been held up due to concerns that such action would make an impending $30 million project related to barotrauma reduction ineligible — that project would be funded through the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration program. The Descend Act would allow the $30 million project to proceed.

“Given the economic and cultural importance of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, we should be doing all we can to ensure the conservation of these fisheries,” said ASA government affairs vice president Mike Leonard in a statement. “Improving the survival of released fish has long been a sportfishing industry priority. We strongly support the Descend Act, and appreciate Reps. Graves and Huffman for their continued leadership on marine conservation policy.”

“Discard mortality and commercial bycatch are significant, hidden drains on our marine resources that must be confronted by all stakeholders and this legislation is a targeted effort that aims to decrease the impact of recreational angling on important species,” said Ted Venker, conservation director for Coastal Conservation Association.

“No one likes to throw back a fish, see it float off and know that it’s a wasted fish,” said Venker. “Given the availability and effectiveness of descending devices to address one of the main factors impacting the availability of many species, particularly red snapper, this legislation makes sense and hopefully leads to greater awareness of the need to reduce all sources of discard and bycatch mortality.”

“Not only will ensuring that we can return fish to depth and minimize post-release mortality benefit fisheries conservation, it will increase angler access to those fisheries in the long-term,” said Chris Horton, fisheries program director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “Releasing more fish alive today will translate to more fish and more days on the water tomorrow.”

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