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October 26, 2001

Reef-Fish Relief

Understanding their unique body functions can improve a reef fish's chances of survival upon release.

Q: My friend says there's no point in releasing injured reef fish because they won't survive - that injured or bleeding fish attract sharks, which eat the injured fish. If that is so, why do scientists recommend puncturing the sides of inflated bottom fish before they're released? Can any reef fish survive attacks by sharks?- Andrew Lynn, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

A: Speaking ecologically, it's a shark's job to seek out and eat sick and injured fish. However, not every fish a shark tries to eat is weak or injured, and not every shark attack is successful. Sometimes fishermen catch fish with scars or missing fins from shark bites, proving that the fish managed to escape becoming a shark meal.
The reef structure itself, with many holes and crevices for fish to hide in, naturally protects reef fish from sharks. The problem with reef fishing is that it pulls bottom fish up to the surface and away from shelter. Even if the angler releases a fish, it must swim down, often 20 to 100 feet or more, before it's safe from sharks and other predators.
Water depth causes another problem: inflated gas bladders. Every 33 feet of water depth is equal to one atmosphere of pressure. As a reef fish is reeled quickly to the surface from moderate depths, it can't regulate the gas in its buoyancy-compensation system and bloats out of control. Before the released fish can swim down to the protection of the reef, it must empty its gas bladder, which takes time.
The angler wanting to release a bloated reef fish is left with two choices: let the fish flounder on the surface, vulnerable to attack, or get it down to the bottom, where it can recuperate in safety, as quickly as possible.
One way to do the latter is to rupture the overexpanded gas bladder with a pointed tool and let the fish swim down on its own. Another method requires hooking the fish through the lips with a barbless hook to a weighted release line and returning the fish directly to the bottom without puncturing its air bladder. This is preferable, since it doesn't wound the fish.