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Originally published in Winter 2015.

“We’re not promoting ‘catch and release’ One example of the importance of proper catch and release over ‘keep it and eat it’; we’re just saying that if you are going to release a fish, you should give it the best possible chance of survival.”

This is the message of the FishSmart campaign, articulated by Andy Loftus, and it’s hard to argue with such reasonableness. Why kill a fish with a sloppy release, when you can do it correctly and send it on its merry way to grow and breed and help improve fishing for the future? As the name implies, it’s just being smart. But perhaps more important than that, it’s also being effective. methods was in play in early 2014 when the Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to reduce the release mortality for three species of Pacific rockfish. “Release mortality” describes how many released fish still die once they’re back in the water. Until recently, the regulations for rockfish assumed 100% mortality for fish caught from 30 fathoms (approximately 180 ft.) and deeper because it was assumed that all fish were “surface released.” But the latest research indicates that using descending devices—that release fish at depth— significantly improves survival rates. As a result, the council has reduced the mortality estimate at all depths deeper than 20 fathoms to as low as 23% when using descending devices. This, in turn, will affect future rockfish management decisions, including catch limits. 

The FishSmart folks love these kinds of stories. The research on Pacific rockfish releases was done before FishSmart came along, but it was the group’s regional workshop that helped to coalesce the research findings and discussion that formed the basis of the Council’s decision. And it’s a perfect example of what FishSmart has been doing for the past three years—getting anglers, scientists and regulators together in workshops to hammer out these issues. 

The primary focus has been to put fishing regulations—those that deal with release procedures—through a vetting process. It’s been a long haul of collecting the best science on the subject and then putting it through a filter of common sense to make sure suggested techniques or regulations will really work in the field. And workshops have been held all around the country, even connecting experts from different regions so they can cross-pollinate ideas and techniques. Every fishery is different, but there are plenty of similarities that allow different groups to learn from each other. 

“In New England and the mid-Atlantic area, using deep-water release devices is basically new ground,” says Loftus. “A few people had heard of them, and more were familiar with venting because they or a friend had fished in Florida, but they’ve got a big issue with cod in New England and black sea bass in the mid-Atlantic. Now, the NOAA folks are starting to introduce anglers to these kinds of release techniques in these areas.” The workshops examined each state’s regulations, and while some things have been confirmed as sound practice, others were found not to work as well as thought. The venting requirement for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example of the latter. It became evident during the FishSmart workshop in Tampa that the science behind venting wasn’t necessarily all that good. Most of the studies examining the technique had been done using a well-trained scientist to vent the fish, not a typical angler on a rocking boat. So, after the workshop, the move to repeal the venting requirement got a boost and was finally approved last year. 

In the end, the FishSmart workshops have resulted in a list of Best Practices for releasing fish that are backed by both good science and good sense. (See the “Release Quiz” below.) Now, the goal is to work with the fishing community to get the word out and educate anglers. 

“We want fishermen to know that using best practices, and using descending devices can have a significant impact on fish survival, fisheries modeling and fisheries management,” says Loftus, “and that will impact their future angling opportunities. That’s what we’re seeing with Pacific rockfish and in the Gulf, and it’s what we can see in other regions around the country, too.” 

Fish Smart Tackle Barotrauma

Anglers are known to spend almost as much time trolling the aisles of their favorite retailers as they do on the water. Now when they’re shopping, they can quickly identify gear that will help improve their catch and release technique. The ASA’s FishSmart Tackle Program has established guidelines for any manufacturer to have their equipment labeled with the FishSmart name if it helps promote the campaign’s Best Practices. From rubberized nets to dehooking tools and circle hooks and much more, it’s an easy way to find catch-and-release-friendly gear. For more information, check out www.fishsmart.org

Release Quiz

Chances are, you think you’re pretty good at releasing fish, but there’s a phenomenon psychologists refer to as “illusory superiority.” It turns out, we all think we do things a little better than the next guy or gal. Well, here’s your chance to prove it when it comes to releasing fish. Take this quiz and see how you stack up. The answers, along with a full description of the FishSmart Best Practices can be found on the next page. 

1. The first step in a successful release is… 

a. giving the hook a couple of hard shakes to see if the fish falls back in the water quickly.

b. yelling at your buddy to get the net out of the locker under the hatch that’s beneath the cooler he’s currently standing on.

c. making sure your fish is small enough for a “toilet release” if you decide not to keep it once
you get home.

d. having a game plan and the tools you need already in place before your hook hits the water.

2. If you start catching too many fish that you can’t keep, either because they are the wrong size or wrong species, you should… 

a. switch to lighter tackle so you can enjoy the challenge of a better fight.

b. keep illegal fish anyway, just buried under some beer at the bottom of the cooler.

c. pour a little of your favorite beverage over the side of the boat for good luck.

d. move to a new fishing hole or change your bait and tackle to avoid unwanted fish.

3. To make releases faster and less stressful on the fish, you should use… 

a. treble hooks, because they hold great when lifting fish over the gunnel and into the boat.

b. lightweight J hooks, because they rust away faster when the fish swallows them.

c. any hook with a barb, because you don’t want to lose the fish and you can always just cut the leader. 

d. appropriate sized circle hooks that won’t gut- hook a fish. 

4. When landing a fish, you should… 

a. use the lightest drag setting possible to maximize the fun. 

b. catch the fish and then cast it back out a few times to reel in again while your buddy gets some action shots with his phone. 

c. drag out the fight and throw some extra chum in the water to attract sharks, barracuda or dolphins who may be in need of an easy meal. 

d. work the fish to the boat as quickly as possible so it’s not exhausted and vulnerable to predators when released. 

5. A good release requires good handling of the fish once at the boat. The best technique is to… 

a. give the fish a quick, WWF-style head slam against the deck, because a stunned fish is a peaceful fish. 

b. lift heavy fish by the lower lip and swing them around a few times, stretching them out before taking a measurement. 

c. use well-textured gloves and a bucket of soapy water to wash off all that fish slime—it might be the only bath your fish ever gets. 

d. use rubber, knotless nets to preserve the fish’s protective coating and support the weight of larger fish, keeping them horizontal and in the water if possible. 

6. Specialized tools can speed up the release process and minimize its impact on a fish. The best tool for releasing fish is… 

a. a pair of channel locks—the big ones covered in hydraulic fluid you found in your toolbox. 

b. an extra-long fillet knife with a skinny blade, so you can reach down the fish’s throat to cut the line and vent the stomach all at the same time. 

c. a modified air cannon (AKA: potato gun) that will launch the released fish far enough away from the boat that it won’t get caught again. 

d. approved dehookers, fish grip devices and deep- water release tools that are appropriate for the size and species of fish you catch. 

7. Fish caught in very deep water often suffer from barotrauma, the rapid expansion of gasses inside the body. To help these fish, it’s best to… 

a. let them lie on the deck for 5 to 10 minutes to see if they will acclimate all on their own. 

b. be proactive and roll the fish up tightly in a wet towel to squeeze out the excess gas. 

c. pierce anything that seems to be bulging out of place—stomach, eyes, the funny stuff around the anal vent. 

d. use a descending device, such as a weighted release clip or basket, to get the fish as close as possible to the depth it was caught. (Keep Scrolling for Quiz Key!)

Catch and Release

Quiz Key 

You guessed it. The answers are all “d”—as in, “don’t be dumb” when it comes to catch and release. We asked our friend, Steve Theberge, who has worked with FishSmart and is a Riverside Technology/NOAA Affiliate, to help explain each of the Best Practices. They’re numbered below to correspond with the quiz questions. 

1. Plan Ahead: Be prepared to release your fish. Have your dehooker, fish gripper and recompression devices out and ready. If you want a picture, have your camera ready, too. The quicker the fish can be released, the better. Time is one of the more critical factors in a release. Out of the water, fish can’t breathe; they are also suffering from stress, which increases susceptibility to disease and infections. And in the South, temperature is also a major stressor, especially in the summer. Have everything out and know where it is so you can act fast. If you need to measure a fish, make sure you can do that quickly, too. 

2. Avoidance:The best plan is to try to avoid fish you cannot keep, especially when fishing in deep water. Some shallow water species have fairly high survival rates when released after being handled correctly, but this is not true for all species, and particularly not true for fish with closed swim bladders caught in deep water. Move if you are catching too many fish you can’t keep, or change lures or bait or hook size to avoid these fish. Unfortunately, total avoidance is sometimes difficult to achieve. 

3. Appropriate gear: Use gear such as circle hooks or lures to avoid gut-hooking fish, a major cause of mortality in released fish. Barbless hooks can help anglers release fish faster and do less damage to the fish. Treble hooks tend to cause more damage, especially multiple hooks. Also, use gear strong enough that you are not likely to break off a fish and leave it with tackle in its mouth. 

4. Landing fish: Land the fish quickly, and do not play the fish until it is completely exhausted. Long battles cause quite a bit of stress and raise stress hormone levels, such as cortisol. This leaves a fish—as well as predators—susceptible to infections and disease. Predation is a major factor impacting the survival of released fish. In the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico, there are large numbers of aggressive predators, such as barracuda, sharks, and bottlenose dolphins that are looking for weak fish on which to feed. 

5. Handling fish: Handle the fish as little as possible. Removing slime or scales from a fish can result in infections and fungus growth. Try to support large fish by holding them horizontally. A rubberized mat on the floor can reduce damage if the fish is dropped and flops around. A rubberized landing net is easier on the fish’s scales and slime, and can also help control the fish and keep it from being dropped. The key is to be fast but gentle. 

6. Releasing fish: Release tools such as dehookers and fish grippers can help minimize handling and speed up the release of the fish. Find tools that fit your type of fishing and that work well for you! 

7. Deep-water releases: Fish with closed-swim bladders, such as grouper and snapper, cannot quickly release gasses from their system. This creates a survival issue when you have to release these fish due to minimum size limits or seasonal closures. The depth at which barotrauma is a problem varies. Often, a quick observation of the fish at the surface can tell you a lot. If the fish is still fighting to get back down, a quick release is probably all you need, but if it is floating and not trying to dive, it probably needs help. Sometimes you do not have to get the fish very deep for it to get back down. The greatest expansion of gasses occurs in the last 32 ft. to the surface. But, it’s best to get as close to the bottom as possible. This also helps with predation. If a released fish can quickly get to the bottom, or rejoin the school of fish it came from, it is less of a target. Finally, in deep-water releases, find release tools and devices that work best for you and the conditions in which you usually fish.Although more research is needed, cages or milk crates (fish elevators) may be a better choice when predation is a major issue, but they are difficult to use in rough conditions or with strong currents. Some devices are better with certain size fish, and some require more expertise to be used effectively. And you can always design your own, but make sure the device is effective and does not damage the fish. For a list of popular devices, anglers can visit www.fishsmart.org. 

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