By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
As the Gulf Coast is in the height of fishing season for abundant reef fish in Alabama’s vast area of artificial reefs, the Return ‘Em Right program is designed to educate anglers on how to s ensure that any fish caught and released have the best chance of surviving and returning. at the reef.
Charlie Robertson, fisheries restoration coordinator with the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, said fish that do not survive after being released, known as dead discards, are impacting fish species. reef fish and anglers.
“Obviously reef fish are a staple in the Gulf,” Robertson said. “This program was funded through a project and made possible by the Deepwater Horizon Open Ocean Trustee implementation group. He identified reef fish as being among the species affected by the oil spill.
The project is designed to address concerns related to depredation and released mortality, as well as to monitor the effectiveness of descent devices and ventilation tools in improving fish survival. The goal is to increase the number of fish that return to depth safely, which improves angling experiences.
The US Congress passed the Descend Act which requires vessels fishing for reef fish to have a descent device or venting tool ready to use.
“The schedule for the Return ‘Em Right program aligns well with the federal requirement to have either a ready-to-use rigged descent device or a venting tool on board a vessel fishing for reef fish,” said Scott Bannon, director of the Alabama department. Marine Resources Division of Conservation and Natural Resources. “I was thrilled with the participation of Alabama anglers in the online training; it shows that they are actively engaged in ensuring that we do what is best for this fishery. Each fish that survives its return helps develop the fishery and provides future fishing opportunities.
When NOAA Fisheries, with input from the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, assesses a fishery stock, such as red snapper, the number of dead discards is included in the assessment and may affect annual quotas. Reef fish can suffer from barotrauma, which occurs when the fish is brought from the reef to the surface. The change in barometric pressure causes the fish’s swim bladder and stomach to expand, preventing a return to depth when released.
“We understand that a lot of the fish that we discard — whether legal, out of season, or undersized — those fish may not have as good a chance of survival,” Robertson said. “We know barotrauma is one of the things we can alleviate. We cannot control predators. But we can control how we deal with barotrauma. We can control how long we keep a fish out of water.
“Barotrauma isn’t the only thing we want to look at. We want to look at the big picture and all the release practices, which includes the handling of the fish and how quickly we release them. the water.
Venting tools are designed to release pressure in the swim bladder and stomach, while descent devices are used to bring a fish down to a certain depth before it is released back to the reef.
“When you cast a fish and it swims 5 feet, we don’t know if that fish has necessarily come back to the reef,” Robertson said. “There are still 100 feet to go. Thanks to the descent devices, it allows the fish to reach the depth more quickly without having to use its own energy. It releases the fish near the bottom or in the reef complex or school of fish to give them natural protection.
Research is beginning to show that fish released closer to the bottom using top-down devices have a better chance of survival.
“With the growing number of recreational anglers – which is good for people to get out on the water and enjoy the resources – it’s all the more important to keep the mindset we need to increase the survival of the fish we’re catching, Robertson said.
Robertson said many species are considered reef fish, but Return ‘Em Right focuses on key species that were identified during workshops in 2019.
“Scientists, fishers and resource managers have developed a matrix with more important species to mitigate discard survival,” he said. “The priority species in our project are red snapper, gag and red grouper, gray triggerfish and greater amberjack. That’s not to say they’re more important than some of the other reef fish we catch on a regular basis. In different parts of the gulf, you encounter different species. »