Even Fish Get “The Bends.” This Is How to Gently Return Fish You’re Not Going to Eat

by Owen James Burke


California rockfish (above) live in deep water. Photo: Jon Hamilton/NPR

Reef, wreck and deepwater fish like grouper, snapper, and rockfish, have swim bladders which help them adjust their buoyancy at certain depths, but like humans and many other animals, if they ascend too fast from the depths, the gases in their bodies expand. When fishermen pull these fish up, more often than not they reach the surface with their stomach ballooning out of their mouths and their eyes popping out of their skulls, looking like they’re bound to explode. Surely they’re dead, you’d imagine. Not necessarily. They’re experiencing what’s called barotrauma, and if handled properly, they’ll recover in short order. If not, they’ll float around at the surface until they can absorb the gases and descend on their own, that is if during the meantime they’re fortunate enough not to fall to predation while debilitated in what is one of the more vulnerable places within the water column.


Image via catchandrelease.org

For decades, fishermen have been performing minor surgery to release their catch using what is known as a “venting tool,” which is basically just an oversized hypodermic needle. You can buy a venting tool at many fishing stores, but make sure you have an idea of where the swim bladder is (note: they’re in different places in different species), or you can simply use a giant needle, if you know where to get your hands on one that is. Just don’t go poking around in their like Nurse Ratched, or you’ll end up puncturing not the swim bladder, but some other vital organ, and the fish will die. As perfectly as I’ve seen this method work, I’ve always found it a bit peculiar, and of course, any considerate angler has got to wonder what the fish might be thinking.

One other method fishermen use to return fish to the depths involves a downrigger — a very costly and cumbersome piece of equipment if you don’t have one. It’s generally used for trolling lures at depth by attaching heavy weights to a line which clips on to the main fishing line, but can also be used to carefully lower fish back to their domain.

But, if you don’t have a pricy downrigger or you’re not sadistic enough to stick fish with needles and you’re still concerned about releasing your fish in the best condition possible, you’re in luck. Fishermen now have a much simpler and portable descending device for releasing deepwater fish, NPR reports.

Another important piece of advice for releasing fish unharmed which I feel obliged to share is that an angler should always wet their hands before handling fish. The slime on fish is a protective coating, and bacterial forcefield. If your dry hands remove it, you leave a gap in the shield, and the fish becomes extremely susceptible to parasites and infections later on. Read more on NPR — OJB

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