Best Practices to Release Reef Fish

A new guide details how to safely release deepwater bottomfish species.
red snapper release with descender device
Research shows using best release practices can dramatically increase the survival of reef fish such as red snapper. Courtesy Return ‘Em Right

Prized bottomfish such as red snapper, gag grouper and other demersal species are experiencing overfishing. That’s according to state and federal fisheries managers in charge of overseeing fish populations. What that means for recreational anglers in the last decade is often shorter seasons, plus the likelihood of early seasonal closures. As you might imagine, the range of emotions many weekend-warriors experience falls anywhere from anger and frustration, to understanding, all the way to acceptance.

Anglers do not set snapper and grouper size limits and seasons — that’s completely out of our hands. What anglers can control is how they safely release a bottom fish that can’t be kept. Study after study shows that a percentage of bottom fish die after release — whether from gut hooking, barotrauma, or shark depredation.

One very powerful and effective way to release fish experiencing barotrauma is to use a descending device. In fact, have one rigged on a rod, ready to go, whenever bottom fishing. Barotrauma is a pressure-related injury fish experience when reeled up from depth. These dead discards negatively impact the health of fisheries.

bottom fish descender device
This descending device — made up of a heavy weight and claw that triggers open at a specified depth — is a top option to safely release bottom fish species such as grouper, snapper and rockfish. Courtesy Return ‘Em Right

Return ‘Em Right — a program dedicated to increasing survival of reef fish — published a Best Release Practices Manual, developed in collaboration with private anglers, captains, scientists and fisheries managers. The number one goal of the manual is to help anglers improve the survival of reef fish that are caught and released.

 “Research shows using best release practices can dramatically increase the survival of reef fish. This manual is yet another tool anglers can add to their tacklebox,” said Dr. Marcus Drymon, Marine Fisheries Specialist, Mississippi State University, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant.

So while anglers might not be able to set fish seasons, or even what bites their line as bycatch, they can be prepared and ready to safely descend fish back down into the depths.  

snapper release with descending device
Courtesy Return ‘Em Right

“The decisions we make on the water can significantly impact the current and future status of our fisheries. There is no single best practice that can be used in every situation, so this manual serves as a guide to help anglers make informed decisions that lead to the greatest chance of survival for each fish they catch and release.” said Captain Dylan Hubbard, owner and operator of Hubbard’s Marina, in Madeira Beach, Florida.

About Return ‘Em Right: The angler-driven program provides training and free release gear to Gulf of Mexico reef fish anglers who are committed to using best release practices and helping the future of the fishery.