Gear Up for the Summer Snapper Season with Return ‘Em Right

Summer is around the corner! The Return ‘Em Right project is ready to support anglers flocking to the Gulf of Mexico’s waters for the opening of red snapper seasons.

Whether you’re a for-hire captain or only get offshore occasionally, a key part of prepping for the start of the reef fish seasons is to know how to release fish correctly, and have the gear to do so. The Return ‘Em Right project provides eligible anglers with free release gear, shipped to their door. Eligible anglers include those who fish recreationally offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, and who have completed a short training.

Read on to learn more about why this matters for the health of Gulf fisheries. Then head over to to take a 15-minute training on best release practices.

Why does releasing fish correctly matter?

Fishing for snapper and grouper in the Gulf is extremely popular, especially during the summer months. So popular, in fact, that millions of anglers fish offshore in hopes of keeping fish for the dinner table, but many will need to be released because they are too small, out of season, or the bag limit has been met. This means millions of fish are at risk of dying if anglers don’t take action to help them survive.

Fish pulled up from relatively shallow water, 50 feet or less, usually survive release when handled properly. But fish reeled up from beyond 50 feet will likely suffer from barotrauma and need extra help to survive.

What is barotrauma?

Barotrauma is a pressure-related injury caused by the expansion of gasses in a fish’s tissues and organs as they are brought up from depth. This causes internal damage and bloating, often showing up as bulging eyes, bloated midsection, protruding intestines, bubbly scales, and the stomach protruding from the mouth. Unable to swim back down when they are thrown back at the surface, these “floaters” are likely to be eaten by a predator or die from their injuries.

That’s where release gear comes into play. These different tools and devices help fish suffering from barotrauma get back down to depth allowing the fish to swim away.

Can one angler really make a difference?

Absolutely! Each offshore angler’s effort adds up, and there’s a free and easy way for you to help.

One year ago, the Return ‘Em Right project launched for offshore anglers throughout the Gulf. The project’s mission is to equip anglers with the knowledge and gear to confidently and successfully release reef fish.

To date, more than 14,000 anglers have completed the project’s 15-minute online review of best release practices. In exchange, anglers received a package of release gear, including a pre-rigged descending device, and a backup descending device—at no cost.

In follow-up surveys, a majority of participating anglers say they prefer descending devices compared to other release tools such as venting.

What happened to venting?

In the past, anglers have typically used venting tools to mitigate barotrauma. This includes inserting a hypodermic needle or hollow tool into the body cavity of the fish to release the excess gas. When done properly, venting can increase survival. However, studies have shown that many anglers do not insert the needle in the correct place, or use an inappropriate venting tool, causing further harm to the fish.

Returning fish to depth using a descending device is the preferred method of release because it is less invasive and promotes long-term survival of released fish.

What types of descending devices are available?

There are two common types of descending devices.

Lip Grip Device

With a  lip grip device, a metal clamp is easily attached to the fish’s lower jaw. The fish is descended back to depth using a weight—; 1 pound of weight for every 5 pounds of fish is a good rule of thumb. Some release automatically based on depth while others release manually.

Inverted Hook Device

The inverted hook style involves inserting a barbless hook through the original hook hole, or through the fish’s lower jaw, and dropping the fish to the desired depth. As you reel up, the hook slides out of the fish’s mouth.

Are descending devices hard to use?

As with any new fishing gear, it can take a couple of trips to become comfortable using them, but they’re easy to use. These devices help ensure the many released reef fish will survive, spawn, and potentially be caught again.

The Return ‘Em Right training provides the essentials regarding releasing fish impacted by barotrauma, including:

  • How to prepare for your trip
  • How to recognize the symptoms of barotrauma
  • Options for tools to send fish back to depth

Tips for Using a Descending Device

A few tips and tricks can make descending fish an easy and efficient part of your day on the water.

Rig Your Descending Gear Before Making Your First Drop

Attaching a weight with a loop knot or swivel can allow you to add or remove weight quickly. If using a SeaQualizer, set the depth on the device based on where you’ll be fishing.

Find a Descending Device Setup that Works for You

This could include setting up a heavy duty rod in the 30-90 degree rod holder. Some anglers prefer to use an electric reel or attach their device to a hand line.

Properly Attach Your Descending Device to the Fish

If using a lip grip device, attach it to the lower jaw for a better grip. If using an inverted hook device, look for the same hole the hook made or gently pierce the hook through the soft tissue under the lower jaw. These spots will do the least harm to the fish.

Project Funding and Partners

This $30 million project was selected and funded by the Deepwater Horizon Open Ocean Trustee Implementation Group as part of the 2019 Open Ocean Restoration Plan.

Project partners include:

  • NOAA
  • Florida Sea Grant
  • Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission
  • Coalition of anglers, industry groups, state agencies, universities, government and non-government organizations

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