The federal government is proposing a new regulation for coastal fishing, but unlike catch limits and season reductions, many anglers and professional associations seem to support the proposed change.
The Direct Enhancement of Snapper Conservation and the Economy through Novel Devices or (DESCEND) Act is a bipartisan legislation that aims to improve the health of reef fish populations by requiring fishermen to keep equipment used to more safely return unwanted fish to the seabed.
The bill was introduced last week by Senator Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La. A bipartisan companion bill was also recently introduced in the House.
Because reef fish like red snapper are often caught and rapidly brought to the surface from deeper waters, they can suffer from barotrauma — a decompression sickness often referred to as “the bends” by scuba divers. The effects can be much more severe in deep-sea fish, and can cause their stomachs to be pushed out through their mouths, bulging eyes, bloating or protruding intestines from the built-up air pressure.
The effect on fish populations is compounded because there are strict catch limits on fish like snapper, which means anglers are often choosey and throw a lot of fish back before deciding to keep one. The trouble is, fish suffering from barotrauma often can’t return to the proper depth fast enough, which can be fatal.
Venting tools and descending devices are made to help either release the air trapped in a fish’s body cavity or weigh it down to drag it to the bottom more quickly. Both can increase its chances of survival.
The DESCEND Act would require commercial and recreational fishermen to keep descending devices or venting tools onboard their boats to help fish suffering from barotrauma. Announcing the bill, Jones said even if it saves one fish at a time, the collective effect across the five Gulf states could be significant.
“I’ve been fishing all my life, so I know how important it is to protect Gulf species like red snapper,” he said in a press release. “The use of descending devices and venting tools is one way we can help maintain healthy populations of reef fish, which is crucial for the economy of Alabama and for ensuring future generations can continue to enjoy species like red snapper.”
Descending devices and venting tools are relatively inexpensive, usually ranging from $10 to $20 depending on the brand. Several outdoor and fishing associations have also backed the legislation, including the American Sportfishing Association, which recently conducted a pilot program with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) offering free descending devices.
“We provided hundreds of these devices to Alabama anglers,” ADCNR Commissioner Chirs Blankenship said. “The program showed [they were] very effective in decreasing release mortality in reef fish.”
Speaking to Lagniappe, Captain Gary Bryant with Red Eye Charters in Orange Beach said he supported the idea behind the DESCEND Act, too, adding he was one of the fishermen who was issued a descending device as part of the state’s previous pilot program and still uses one today.
“They work, you just have to slow down and go through the process of sending the fish back down,” Bryant said. “If the bill is put into law, it should be mandatory for all user groups. All fishing sectors should be able to support lowering the release mortality rate of discarded reef fish.”
However, Bryant did note that, miles offshore, there’s really no way to enforce actually using the devices.
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