Grouper barotrauma

WaterLine file photo

This red grouper is exhibiting the classic signs of barotrauma.

If you’ve gone bottom fishing in the Gulf, you’ve probably seen fish come up inflated like beach balls. Their eyes bulge, their stomachs stick out of their mouths, and their bellies look like balloons. This is barotrauma — the rapid inflation of the fish’s swim bladder due to a sudden reduction of water presure — and it’s a problem most offshore fishermen are well-acquainted with.

If you’re putting fish in the cooler, barotrauma is no big deal. But if you’re trying to release them, you have to do something to prevent them from just bobbing along the surface. For a long time, the best solution was venting — basically, poking a hole in the side of the fish to let the air out.

Venting works, when done right. But it can go very wrong. Poke the wrong spot, and you might pierce the heart or stomach instead of the swim bladder. At best, the fish has a hole in its side, which is not great considering we’re trying to get these fish to survive and thrive.

That’s where descending gear comes in. If the fish is lowered back to depth, the gases in its body recompress naturally — no extra holes required. And now you can get free descending gear, thanks to a program funded by Deepwater Horizon fines.

Return ‘Em Right is a program that aims to reduce catch-and-release mortality from fish suffering from barotrauma in the Gulf of Mexico. The program is led by Florida Sea Grant, University of Florida, Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, NOAA and a coalition of anglers, industry groups, state agencies, universities, government and non-government organizations committed to maintaining healthy fish stocks and fishing access in the Gulf.

The following press release explains it all:

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (May 3, 2022) — Return ‘Em Right is launching its program to offshore anglers throughout the Gulf of Mexico today. By participating in a short online review of best practices, anglers can receive free release gear valued at $100 to help reef fish survive release.

Each year, more than 10 million federally managed reef fish are released, and at least one million of those will die after being released.

For every one percent of landed and released fish anglers save through learning and using best release practices, over 100,000 reef fish could survive to grow, possibly spawn, and be caught again.

“I have enjoyed teaching my daughter to fish and know one way to keep the fisheries healthy for her generation is to release them properly. I hope Gulf anglers take advantage of Return ‘Em Right — free gear and training to benefit the fishery is a win-win,” said JD Dugas, a recreational angler from Louisiana.

Return ‘Em Right promotes best release practices, with an emphasis on proper use of descending devices, which research shows can improve long-term survival of reef fish by up to three times. Descending devices are weighted devices that help fish overcome buoyancy and injury by releasing them at depth. These devices come in a variety of forms, including weighted inverted hooks, lip clamp devices, and weighted crates and boxes.

“I used descending devices for the first time recently, and I’ve seen them work firsthand. Not a single fish floated back up the entire day offshore fishing,” said Alexandra Spring, three-time IGFA World Record Holder.

Gulf of Mexico reef fish anglers 18 years and older are now eligible to visit the Return ‘Em Right website, review best release practices, and receive a package of release gear to use out on the water. The educational review is available to all individuals who are interested in learning best practices when encountering barotrauma, regardless of your age, location, or role in the fishery.

“Return ‘Em Right welcomes all anglers to participate in the program and we are excited to be a resource to a community committed to preserving the future of the sport,” said Return ‘Em fisheries communications manager Right Nick Haddad.

To get your free gear, go to

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or


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