Descending gear

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council photo

This short red snapper is about to get a quick ride back to the bottom, courtesy of descending gear.

Provided by NOAA Fisheries

The Direct Enhancement of Snapper Conservation and the Economy through Novel Devices Act of 2020 (DESCEND Act) requires persons on commercial, for-hire, and private recreational vessels to have a venting tool or descending device rigged and ready to use when fishing for reef fish species in Gulf of Mexico federal waters. This rule clarifies the definitions of a descending device and venting tool.

Proposed Changes

The DESCEND Act:

• Requires fishermen to have a venting tool or descending device rigged and ready to use when fishing for reef fish.

• Applies to fishing for reef fish from commercial vessels, charter vessels and headboats, and private recreational fishing vessels.

• Allows fishermen to choose which device to have rigged and ready for use.

• Does not prevent fishermen from carrying both types of devices as a fisherman may find that they favor certain devices for individual situations.

• The descending device and venting tool requirements expire on Jan. 13, 2026.

Descending Device:

An instrument capable of releasing a fish at the depth from which the fish was caught. It must be rigged and ready for use when fishing. It is a weighted hook, lip clamp, or box that will hold the fish while it is lowered to depth. The rule would require a minimum of a 16-ounce weight and a minimum length of 60 feet of line attached to the descending device.

Venting tool:

A venting tool must be capable of penetrating the abdomen of a fish to release the excess gases accumulated in body cavity when a fish is retrieved from depth. A venting tool must be a sharpened, hollow instrument that allows air to escape, such as a hypodermic syringe with the plunger removed.

The rule sets a 16–gauge needle, which has an outside diameter of 0.065 inches, as the minimum diameter hollow tube that must be used. Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishermen may also choose to use a larger diameter hollow needle because it will allow more air to escape from a fish rapidly.

Fishermen must not use a tool that is not hollow, such as a knife or an ice pick, to vent a fish.

How to Comment on the Proposed Rule:

The comment period is open now through Dec. 9. You may submit comments by electronic submission or by postal mail. Comments sent by any other method (such as e-mail), to any other address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, may not be considered by NOAA Fisheries.

Formal Federal Register Name/Number: 86 FR 62137, published Nov. 9, 2021.

Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal. Go to Regulations.gov and enter “NOAA-NMFS-2021-0100” in the Search box. Click the “Comment” icon, complete the required fields. Enter or attach your comments.

Mail: Submit written comments to Peter Hood, Southeast Regional Office, NMFS, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are these fishing gear requirements being implemented?

Commercial and recreational fishermen have expressed concern about regulations that result in released fish that do not survive. Some released fish die due to foul hooking (hooking the fish in the stomach or throat), injuries caused by barotrauma (injury due to expansion of gas when reeled up from depth), handling damage, stress from the fishing process, and predation.

To improve the survivorship of released fish, Congress developed the Direct Enhancement of Snapper Conservation and the Economy through Novel Devices Act of 2020 (DESCEND Act) that was signed into law on Jan. 13, 2021, by President Trump. The purpose of the DESCEND Act is to promote the survival of released reef fish suffering from barotrauma.

The purpose of this proposed rule is to clarify the definitions of a descending device and venting tool. For example, adding a minimum weight and length of line to the descending device definition.

What is barotrauma?

Barotrauma in fish is an injury caused by the expansion of gas inside a fish from the rapid pressure decrease that occurs when fish is retrieved from the bottom. Barotrauma generally occurs when retrieving fish from depths of 90 feet or greater, but it can occur in waters as shallow as approximately 33 feet deep.

Barotrauma results from internal gases that fill the abdomen and the fish may be unable to swim back down to the capture depth. Signs of barotrauma in fish include a distended abdomen, bulging eyes, an everted stomach, and bubbling under the scales.

Fish experiencing barotrauma often have difficulty swimming to deeper waters or float on the surface, which makes them vulnerable to predation from dolphins, sharks and other fish, and seabirds.

When and how should descending devices or venting tools be used?

Fishermen can help reduce mortality to fish they release by using a descending device or a venting tool when barotrauma is affecting a fish. It is the intent of the DESCEND Act that descending devices or venting tools only be used when a fish may be experiencing barotrauma (e.g., caught in deep water, protruding stomach, etc.).

Fishermen can use a descending device to lower the fish back to depth where gases recompress and the fish can be released.

Fishermen can use a venting tool to release gases in the abdomen at the surface allowing fish to swim unaided back to depth after they are released.

Where can I find more information on descending devices and venting tools?

There are a variety of articles and videos readily available online discussing descending devices and venting tools.

NOAA Fisheries has a webpage on catch and release best practices at https://bit.ly/3kx6TsP.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has a web page titled “Fishing for Our Future in the Eastern Gulf” that provides written materials and videos at https://bit.ly/3kENbey.

Florida Sea Grant has a web page titled “Catch and Release Fishing” at https://bit.ly/3FjAu9y.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council developed a best fishing practices tutorial, available at https://bit.ly/37s4NaM.

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