With the Gulf Coast in the peak of fishing season for the abundant reef fish in Alabama’s vast artificial reef zone, the Return ‘Em Right program is designed to educate anglers on how to ensure any fish caught and released have the best chance to survive and return to the reef.
Charlie Robertson, Fisheries Restoration Coordinator with the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, said fish that don’t survive after being released, known as dead discards, have an impact on the reef fish species and anglers alike.
“Obviously reef fish are a big staple in the Gulf,” Robertson said. “This program was funded through a project and came about through the Deepwater Horizon Open Ocean Trustee Implementation Group. It identified reef fish as some of the species impacted by the oil spill.”
“The timing of the Return ‘Em Right program coincides nicely with the federal requirement to have either a descending device rigged and ready for use or a venting tool onboard a vessel fishing for reef fish,” said Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division. “I have been pleased with the participation from Alabama anglers. This shows they are actively engaged in ensuring we do what is best for this fishery. Every fish that survives being returned helps grow the fishery and provide future fishing opportunities.”
When NOAA Fisheries, with input from the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, evaluates a fishery stock, like red snapper, the number of dead discards is included in the assessment and can affect the annual quotas. Reef fish can suffer from barotrauma, which happens when the fish is reeled in from the reef to the surface. The change in barometric pressure causes the fish’s swim bladder and stomach to expand, hindering a return to depth when released, “We understand that a lot of fish we discard – whether regulatory, out of season or undersized – those fish may not have as good a chance at survival,” Robertson said. “We know that barotrauma is one of the things we can mitigate. We can’t control predators. But we can control how we deal with barotrauma. We can control how long we keep a fish out of the water.”
“When you toss a fish over and it swims down 5 feet, we don’t know if that fish necessarily made it back to the reef,” Robertson said. “It’s got 100 feet left to go. Using the descending devices, it allows the fish to get to depth quicker without having to use its own energy. It releases the fish close to the bottom or within the reef complex or a school of fish to give it some natural protection.”
“With the growing number of recreational anglers, it makes it even more important to keep the mindset that we need to increase the survival of the fish we’re catching,” Robertson said.
“One of the big uplifts for this program is we’re educating anglers in the Gulf about best practices for release,” Robertson said. “It includes how and when to use different tools to increase discard survival.”
“The idea is to give back to anglers after the oil spill with free gear and support the fishery for years to come by properly releasing fish,” Haddad said. “This is not only important today but also 10 years down the line. These fish are spawning and contributing to the future of the stock.”
Haddad said the outreach will soon extend to bait shops, tackle shops, marinas, and angling networks to spread the word about Return ‘Em Right.
“They’re telling us that the SeaQualizer is even easier to use than a venting tool,” Robertson said. “You get the hook out of the fish’s mouth and clip on the descending device, which acts almost like a BogaGrip. Then you release the line on your reel and send the fish down to the desired depth. It’s really easy.”
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