Update:The requirement to have and use venting tools has been eliminated in Gulf of Mexico federal waters and will be eliminated soon in Gulf state waters. By removing this rule, anglers will now have the freedom to determine how to best maximize survival of released reef fish using devices they feel are appropriate, depending on the circumstances.
State and federal regulations require all commercial fishers and recreational anglers fishing for any reef fish species in the Gulf of Mexico to use circle hooks and dehooking devices. These rules became effective on June 1, 2008 in all waters of the Gulf of Mexico and affect all reef fish species including groupers, snappers, amberjacks, triggerfish, porgies, sea bass, hogfish, and tilefish. As of July 29, 2009, regulations require recreational and commercial fishers to use dehooking devices when fishing for reef fish in federal waters of the Atlantic off Florida. Consistent regulations have been in effect in state waters of the Atlantic since Jan. 19, 2010. Effective March 3, 2011, non-stainless steel circle hooks must be used when fishing for reef fish with hook and line gear and natural baits north of latitude 28°N in Atlantic federal waters.
The intent of these rules is to help conserve fishery resources by minimizing mortality associated with releasing fish that are not going to be harvested due to regulations or for other reasons. Fishers and anglers are being asked to be responsible to acquire and use the required gear when fishing for reef fish species.
Additionally, common sense should be used in abiding by these rules. For instance, if a hook is too far embedded in the throat or gut of the fish, it is much better to cut the line from the hook rather than try to remove the hook with a dehooking device. The non-stainless steel hooks will disintegrate in a relatively short period of time and should cause the fish less harm.
The rules require fishers on all vessels fishing for reef fish in the Gulf to possess and use non-stainless steel circle hooks when natural baits are used. A circle hook is a fishing hook designed and manufactured so that the point is not offset, but turned perpendicularly back to the shank to form a generally circular or oval shape.
At its June 2010 meeting, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council approved a management measure that would require persons aboard vessels fishing for reef fish in Atlantic federal waters north of 28° latitude (near Melbourne) to use non-stainless steel circle hooks. This requirement went into effect March 3, 2011.
Fishers on all vessels fishing for reef fish in state and federal waters of the Gulf and Atlantic, are required to possess and use a dehooking device to remove hooks embedded in reef fish with minimal damage. The dehooking device must be constructed to allow the hook to be secured and the barb shielded without re-engaging during the removal process. It must be blunt and all edges rounded, and it must be of a size appropriate to secure the range of hook sizes and styles used in the reef fish fishery.
Marine reef fish have a gas-filled organ called a swim bladder, which controls buoyancy and allows the fish to maintain a certain depth. When a reef fish is pulled up from deep water, the gas in the swim bladder sometimes expands. When a fish is released in this condition, the fish is unable to swim back down to capture depth making it difficult to survive the elements and avoid predators.
Venting tools are sharpened, hollow instruments such as a hypodermic syringe with the plunger removed or a 16-guage needle fixed to a hollow wooden dowel that allow for the release of expanded gas from the fish body cavity—enabling fish to swim back to capture depth. A variety of tools are available in bait and tackle stores. A tool such as a knife or ice-pick is not a venting tool because it does not allow the expanded gases to escape from inside the body.
How to Vent
The most important thing when handling fish for any reason, is to handle it as little as possible. Vent the fish as quickly as you can by holding the fish gently on its side and inserting the needle into the body cavity at a 45-degree angle under a scale. The area to insert the venting tool is approximately 1 to 2 inches behind the base of the pectoral fin. Insert the venting tool just deep enough to release the expanded gases. You may hear an audible release of this gas.
When to Vent
Fish taken from depths of 50 feet or more may undergo expansion of the gases in the swim bladder as they are brought to the surface at a rapid rate. If a fish cannot descend on its own, venting is a method that can be used to release the gas and allow the fish to go back down to capture depth. There is no strict formula for determining when a fish will require venting. Problems usually start to occur when reef fish are taken from depths of 50 feet or more, but there are a number of factors that make it impossible to predict an exact depth. Also, different species react differently. The change in water temperature from summer to winter can also make a big difference. There are a number of signs of this condition (Barotrauma). The signs include: protrusion of the stomach from the mouth, bulging eyes, bloated belly, and distended intestines showing from the vent. Observing one, any or all of these indicates the fish needs venting before releasing it.
Remember to only use a venting tool when one or all of the below signs of trauma are noticed. If the stomach is protruding from the mouth of the fish, do not try to vent or push the stomach back in, when the fish swims back down to depth it will re-ingest its stomach. Return the fish to the water as soon as possible and if necessary revive the fish with the head pointed downward and moving the fish forward in the water allowing water to pass over the gills.