Fishing is a favorite pastime of Florida’s residents and visitors which makes Florida the “Fishing Capital of the World”. Fishing efforts in Florida have increased dramatically over the past decade, and are constantly continuing to increase. In 2011, Florida’s recreational anglers took approximately 24 million fishing trips and caught roughly 121 million marine fishes, 74 million of which were released. With tourism on the rise and Florida’s resident population of nearly 19 million increasing daily, it is important that both residents and visitors become stewards of Florida’s natural resources to protect our marine fisheries for future generations.
Managing Our Resources
The FWC manages fisheries resources through a variety of methods, which include slot limits, bag limits, and closed seasons. When you are on the water, you play the role as not only an angler, but as a biologist, manager, and steward. By playing your part as resource manager and by practicing catch and release you are ensuring healthy fish populations for you and future anglers for years to come!
Managers of Florida's fisheries use a combination of traditional measures to control harvests and protect fish stocks. These measures include bag limits; minimum and maximum sizes; closed seasons; and in some cases, harvest is prohibited unless a special permit is purchased. Bag limits reduce the number of fish that are harvested and allocate the catch over time so that the year's total harvest is not taken in one season. Aggregate bag limits are sometimes applied collectively to a complex of species such as snappers, so that the community is not overfished. Minimum and maximum sizes or "slot" limits protect sexually immature fish while closed seasons protect a species during spawning, especially when fish return yearly to known locations to spawn. The "no harvest" rule is implemented when a stock, for example the Goliath Grouper, is severely over-fished, or when environmental effects such as a cold kill occurs and species such as snook are severely impacted. To succeed, Florida's fishery management strategies of size limits and closed seasons depend on the survival of fish that are caught and released.
"Limit your take, don't take your limit!"
Controlled studies have shown that most fish released after hook-and-line capture survive. Researchers working in Boca Grande Pass tagged 27 tarpon with sonic transmitters and found that 26 of these hook-and-line-caught fish survived. The casualty had been lifted from the water for a photograph before release. Similarly, scientists repeatedly caught bonefish held in a large pond in the Florida Keys and found that 96% survived capture. The few bonefish that died had been caught 5-10 times each, which suggests that bonefish hooked and released in the wild probably have an even higher survival rate. Angler-caught snook held in large net-pens throughout Florida had a 98% survival rate after hook-and-line capture and release. Spotted seatrout caught in Tampa Bay had a 95% survival rate, however hook position affected survival rates. Trout hooked in the gills or gut had lower survival rates than those hooked in the mouth. Red Drum survival rates ranged from 84% in Georgia waters to 96% in Texas waters and like seatrout, hook position affected survival rates. More than 50% of the throat- or gut-hooked fish died. These studies demonstrate that catch and release fishing works the majority of the time. Most fish that are released survive; however, by following a few simple guidelines, anglers can maximize survival rates.
After a fish is caught and released by an angler, fish mortality occurs for a variety of reasons. The most common forms of mortality are the physiological stress on the fish caused by the struggle during capture, injuries caused by the hook, or from the mishandling of the fish by the angler. Unfortunately, some fish may die even though they appear unharmed and despite the efforts by the angler to revive the fish. Fish that struggle intensely during capture are usually exhausted and stressed from the accumulation of excessive amounts of lactic acid in their muscles and blood. Severe exhaustion causes physiological imbalance, muscle failure, or death. The stress of capture may be more severe for larger fish such as tarpon, therefore, using the proper weight-class tackle, landing your catch quickly, and releasing the fish as quickly as possible, the fish has a greater chance of survival. Bringing an exhausted fish out of the water is like asking a triathlon winner to jump back in the water and hold their breath---they both need oxygen to recover! Below are steps you as an angler can take to increase the chances the fish you catch and release will survive.
Guidelines for Catch and Release
Know before you GO!
Decide beforehand which fish are to be kept and immediately release all others. Do not engage in a prolonged debate over whether or not to release the fish after it has been landed. A fish should never be placed in a live well if it is not intended for harvest, and never release a fish that has been in a live well if a larger, legal fish has been caught. The fish released from the live well has a decreased chance of surviving.
Match the tackle to the targeted fish to land it quickly and minimize stress on the fish.
Circle hooks and de-hooking tools are devices that decrease handling time and stress while releasing a fish. Learn more about circle hooks, dehooking devices and venting tools!
Handle fish as little as possible and only with wet hands.
If a fish needs to be handled, first wet your hands. This helps protect the slime layer of the fish which is used as defense against parasites and diseases. A knotless, rubber coated landing net is also ideal when handling a fish since it supports the fish’s body weight. Remember, fish swim horizontally! Never hold a fish by its jaw, gills or eyes. Large fish, such as tarpon, should not be boated or dragged over the gunwale of the boat because this could injure the internal organs of the fish. When holding a fish that has teeth, use a gripping tool to support the front of the fish, and use the other hand under the belly to evenly support the weight of the fish.
Practice CPR-Catch, photo, release!
When taking a picture of your catch, hold the fish horizontally by supporting its weight with both hands. This helps to eliminate the possibility of damaging the fish internally. It is best to designate someone on the boat as the “photographer”, that way when an angler “hooks up” with a fish, the photographer is ready to go.
Whenever possible, take pictures of the fish while in the water.
Never “toss” a fish back! Always release your fish gently head first into the water. This allows water to be forced through the mouth and over the gills, essentially giving it a “breath of fresh air”.
Reviving a Fish
If the fish doesn't immediately swim away or it is lethargic or erratic, some "resuscitation" may be needed until the fish can swim off on its own. Revive exhausted but otherwise healthy fish by first placing the fish in the water, one hand under the tail or under the belly, and the other hand holding the bottom lip. If the vessel is anchored, point the fish head-first into the current to gently force water through the mouth and over the gills. If the vessel is not anchored or there isn’t a current, hold the fish in the water alongside the boat and gently nudge the boat into gear, forcing water through the gills of the fish. If an angler is fishing from a non-motorized vessel, such as a kayak, place the fish in the water and hold its front lip, you can use a gripping tool if the fish has teeth. Move the fish in a figure “8” motion. Never hold the fish by the tail or lip and simply move it back and forth in the water. This will not allow water to flow properly through the gills of the fish!
Large species such as sharks, billfish and tarpon should be brought alongside the boat within 20 minutes of being hooked.
If you are consistently landing exhausted fish that require extensive efforts at resuscitation, you should consider using heavier tackle.
Contrary to some reports, there are no new saltwater fish handling regulations in Florida. However, the FWC has recently been reminding anglers about existing rules that are meant to protect fish when they can’t be taken.
Fish must be immediately released for several reasons:
- If there is no allowable harvest of the fish, ex. Prohibited species such as goliath grouper and Nassau grouper
- Several species, such as snook, redfish and spotted seatrout, can be kept only at certain times and sizes, etc. Always check the most current regulations for any species of fish.
- For some species you can only possess the fish if you possess a tag or permit. For example, tarpon can be kept at the cost of $50 per tag, per fish, when in pursuit of an International Game Fish Association record, but without this tag, possession is illegal. The tag must be clipped to lower jaw after being caught.
When a fish isn’t allowed to be harvested, it must immediately be returned to the water free, alive, and unharmed. However, if a fish is allowed to be taken at a certain size limit, it’s okay to temporarily possess it to measure it, as long as it is measured immediately after removing it from the water, and the fish is then immediately returned to the water free, alive, and unharmed if it is not a legal-size fish.
Sometimes it’s better to safely handle a fish to carefully remove the hook so it can be released, and other times it’s best to cut the line as close to the hook as possible while the fish is in the water – especially if it’s large or agitated.
It is okay to take a picture of a fish that is not allowed to be harvested while it’s in the process of being released, but it still must be let go immediately and should not be held in lengthy poses just for the purpose of taking the picture.
It is never legal to hold on to or tow a fish that is not allowed to be harvested to a place to weigh or measure it for a fishing tournament or record.
The plain fact is that many of our most popular recreational fisheries are strictly regulated, and because of this, many fish caught must be immediately returned to the water. Most anglers would agree that anything we can do to minimize the harm to those fish being released will benefit the resource in the long term.
However, we also don’t want to discourage the fun and excitement of catching fish and documenting the catch, whether for records or the personal satisfaction that comes with sharing this experience with friends and family. That’s why we want to inform the public about safe catch and release techniques, and the harm that can be caused to fish that are handled roughly or held out of the water too long.
Florida’s anglers should be proud of their conservation efforts. They have helped to restore or sustain valuable fisheries, including snook, red drum and spotted seatrout. As the number of anglers continues to grow and our coastal habitats come under increasing stress, it becomes more important than ever to release those fish that cannot be harvested in as good a condition as possible. The next angler will thank you for it.
Practice and share these techniques! Teach your children and inexperienced anglers these few simple procedures to help ensure abundant fish populations for the future. View our brochure on Catch and Release!