Rockfish, including the highly prized yelloweye rockfish (often called red snapper), suffer from barotrauma when brought up from deep water. These fish have an air bladder which is slowly inflated or deflated over many days. This air bladder makes them neutrally buoyant in whatever depth they occupy. A small air bladder at 250 feet becomes a big balloon when decompressed to surface pressures and forces the stomach out of the mouth and makes the eyes bulge. A fish in this condition cannot right itself and make its way down – it needs help. Given that many of rockfish species are very slow growing with some over 100 years old, helping those we can’t keep to survive is the right thing.
For that reason, the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization (SEAGO) proposed a regulation at the last Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting that requires deep water release for demersal shelf rockfish (the kind the live almost exclusively on the bottom) once an angler has retained his or her legal limit. No one likes to see released rockfish floating helplessly on the surface and research indicates that releasing them at depth allows these fish to swim away and survive. The regulation was proposed for all sport and commercial fisheries, but only adopted for charter fishers. We’d like to see everyone taking part in the future.
So, how do you get an inflated rockfish back down you might ask. There are a number of homemade and manufactured devices made for the job. Step one is to quickly attach the fish to the device. Step two is to send it down. Step three is to pop the fish free when it reaches the required depth. In the next installment on this subject, we’ll go cover some of the better deep water release devices and explain how they work. All accomplish the same end result – the fish swims back home under its own power. Our experience is the best results are achieved if you get the fish back to the depth where it was hooked.
See the effects of a deep-water release:
How well these fish survive after a trip to the surface and return to the deep is subject to a number of studies, but the data looks promising. The goal for the sport fishery is to keep our harvest within the quota set for us and bring release mortality way down from the 100% incurred by fish left to float at the surface.
Although deep water release is promising, the very best approach to preserving rockfish stocks is avoidance. If you do encounter a high number of them, the next step is to move. If you do catch these fish beyond your limit, deep water release is the best way to ensure survival.