Anglers, biologists, and conservation groups such as the Sportfishing Conservancy are urging fishermen to use descending devices when releasing deep-water fish. Anglers who chase after species such as rockfish are familiar with a condition called barotrauma, more commonly known as “the bends.” The bends affect humans and fish alike, and occurs when a diver (human or otherwise) is exposed to a significant change in water pressure.
For a fish on a hook, rapid ascent will cause gasses in its swim bladder to expand, resulting in the organ pushing the animal’s stomach through its mouth or bulge out its eyes. Despite how it looks, the fish is not dead and can still be released safely. That is where descending devices come in.
“A variety of descending devices, or recompression tools, are commercially available,” stated the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on its website. “Anglers can also make their own descending devices out of a simple weighted hook or a weighted inverted milk crate. The goal of all such devices, whether they are ‘lip clippers,’ weighted hooks, or ‘drop baskets’ is to quickly and safely return the fish to capture depth, thus minimizing both short-term and long-term damage to tissues and organs.”
Descending devices are commonly in use among veteran deep-water anglers, but conservationists are making sure that even new inductees know how to handle the contraptions. Tom Raftican, president of The Sportfishing Conservancy, told NPR that his organization has been running workshops around the country to educate anglers on how to use the device. Raftican says that the workshops are generally well received because most anglers are eager to protect the fish they love.
“I love to fish and I’d like to see my kids and grandkids out there fishing too,” Raftican said.
State agencies are also eager to promote safe fishing practices, although biologists generally discourage intentional catch-and-release fishing of some species beyond a depth of 60 feet. When releasing deep-water fish, experts advise anglers to avoid rough handling and to limit surface time if possible. Descending devices are often inexpensive, and can be made out of household objects such as milk crates.
Below is an informative—and tongue-in-cheek—video on how to release fish with barotrauma.