If you’ve ever hooked a rockfish at depth and brought it to the surface only to be greeted by a fish with strange bulging eyes, a bloated abdomen, and its stomach jutting out its mouth, you’ve witnessed a condition called barotrauma—a condition that can be reversed thanks to descending devices.
While barotrauma itself isn't always fatal, it can equate to a death sentence for rockfish caught and improperly released by anglers in California. When suffering from barotrauma, a fish released at the surface has no way to get back down to depth on its own. Fish will float at the surface, where they often become a free meal for an eagerly awaiting seabird or sea lion. But, thanks to responsible anglers and the Sportfishing Association of California (SAC), rockfish can now breathe more easily! Here you can learn all about the science of barotrauma and ways you can help ensure the rockfish you catch and release survive, safeguarding future generations of rockfish for anglers to catch.
Tips on recompressing fish
Hurry up! The more quickly a fish is recompressed, the more likely it is to survive and ensure the sustainability of the resource.
Do NOT puncture the stomach extruding from the fish’s mouth.
If utilizing a descending device, such as a barbless hook or “Roklees”, have a dedicated rod rigged to ensure speed when releasing fish – remember that timing is everything!
Use the device most suited to your skill level and to the species/size of fish being caught.
Handle the fish on deck as little as possible. Watch for spines!
If you are catching protected species of fish, move to a different area.
Myth: The organ extruding out of a fish’s mouth is the swim bladder.
Truth: The stomach is forced out of the mouth, not the swim bladder. Remember not to vent (using a sharp object to puncture the fish’s inflated swim baldder) or force the stomach back into the fish’s mouth!
Myth: Barotrauma can be prevented by reeling in a fish slowly.
Truth: It does not matter how slowly a fish is reeled in – they cannot acclimate to the drop in pressure.
Myth: There is nothing you can do to save a bloated fish.
Truth: You can easily save the life of a bloated fish! Familiarize yourself with descending devices, and pick the one that is best for you and the fish, and spread the word about rockfish recompression! It’s easy.
Myth: When a fish is bloated and not moving, it is dead.
Truth: Bloated fish are very much alive! They just need to be recompressed to regain muscle movement.
California anglers can easily prevent wasteful rockfish mortality by employing proper deep-water release techniques. It is very important that fish be quickly recompressed to their native depth range – lucky for anglers and rockfish, there are several simple ways to do just that. Choose the method that works best for you, the size of fish you usually catch, sea conditions, and cost…then get those fish back down.
There are several easy-to-use fish descending devices on the market available to anglers. The species and the size of fish may influence which device works best for you and the fish you catch. Below are a list of currently available options.
The SeaQualizer is designed to release fish at three different depth settings (50ft,100ft,150ft) – it is pressure activated, which avoids premature release of the fish.
The device does not puncture or injure fish.
SFD™ (Shelton Fish Decender™) for recompressing the air bladder of fish suffering barotrauma by descending the fish to a depth greater than 30 feet to allow water pressure to re-compress air bladder easily.
A a milk crate is weighted and attached to a rope. The crate is dropped over the fish and lowered to a depth of at least 60 feet. Here, the fish will swim out of the crate on its own. This methods is affordable and simple to make at home, but can be limited by rough seas as fish can escape the crate prematurely and the crate might band against a fish’s bulging eyes.
With this method, the fish is hooked through the lower lip from the inside out. This prevents the hook from damaging a protruding stomach or bulging eyes. The weight must be ample enough to descend the fish to the desired depth, and once there, the fish is released by a sharp tug on the line.
This method works best on small fish. Anglers should be careful as hooks may puncture an extruded stomach and fish may release off the hook prematurely once muscle coordination is regained.
The tool allows anglers to release fish at depth without venting or unnecessary handling. The angler clamps the tool to a fish’s jaw, adds a weight (5 pounds is recommended for a 20-pound fish) and lowers the fish and tool with a downrigger or rod. Upon reaching bottom, the tool automatically releases the fish.
Links and Information
Underwater video showing release of undersize rockfish that cannot return to depth without intervention due to barotrauma. The rockfish in this video was caught in 320 feet of water and successfully released at a depth of 130 feet utilizing the RokLees recompression device.
Recompression method may be utilized for releasing any fish that suffers from barotrauma: large mouth bass, sand/ calico bas