Florida anglers are no longer required to have and use a venting tool when fishing for reef fish in Gulf of Mexico state waters, encouraging new methods that could increase the survival of released fish.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) adopted the federal rule as of Jan. 24, allowing anglers to choose a device to help their fish survive barotrauma, the internal organ damage caused by pressure change.
Venting is a process of releasing air in the swimbladder — which becomes over-inflated by the quick rise to the surface — by making an incision in the fish belly, according to the Florida Sea Grant page on venting.
Amanda Nalley, a spokeswoman for the commission, said, “The reason for the change is because of the descending device. We’re starting to see more and more people with them, and more people want to use them.”
Descending devices use new techniques that drop deep-water reef fish to depth quickly to recompress the swim bladder without puncturing the body.
Nalley said anglers were required to keep venting tools – hollow, sharp instruments used to recompress the swim bladder by poking a hole – onboard when fishing for reef fish, such as snapper and grouper, which typically suffer from barotrauma when taken from depths around 80 feet.
The devices are meant to increase survival rates of returned fish, she said.
The venting rule came from concerns and data about reef fish species numbers, Nalley said. Its removal was primarily to give anglers the opportunity to use multiple devices. The hope is with the flexibility, more fish will survive being released and can reproduce or be caught later.
Whether the change will specifically improve fish productivity, Nalley said, she can’t say.
“It’s a new thing, and people are trying to figure out what’s best for them,” Nalley said. “And they definitely have a desire to make sure these fish survive release. It’s exciting that everybody will be able to try these different methods out.”
UF marine fisheries ecology associate professor Debra Murie is working on a study with the Florida Sea Grant College Program, which is partnering with the FWC and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Fisheries, to determine whether venting or descending devices is more effective.
She said the rule change came from controversy over the effectiveness of venting tools.
“Right now, we lose a lot of fish just from catch-and-release mortality,” Murie said.
The study she’s working on includes putting little cameras on the devices and sending them down with the fish. The fish are seen being recompressed, with their eyes rolling back into their sockets and their air bladder compressing, as they swim off the hook at depth.
Murie expects data to conclusively show which technique is better in about two years.
She said there are a few different descending devices coming out now, and if survival is higher than it is when venting, it could improve the stocks of fish left in the water for reproducing.
Mark Magnuson, an employee at Dixie Lee Bait, said many people are uneducated about venting tools and end up hurting fish more than helping them.
Located at 6408 Evanston Street in Weeki Wachee, the store has very few customers who go further than 50 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. They still sell venting tools, but Magnuson has seen less people purchasing them.
“It’s almost a joke out here,” he said. “The law change is great.”