Recreational Fishing Community Applauds South Atlantic Descending Device Requirement Effective July 15

Rebecca Louviere, CSP Communications Director

NOAA Fisheries issued the final rule requiring descending devices to be rigged and ready for use onboard all vessels fishing for or possessing snapper-grouper species in South Atlantic federal waters. The rule will go into effect on July 15, 2020, for all commercial, for-hire and private recreational vessels.

When deep-water fish are brought rapidly to the surface, they can experience barotrauma – a condition where a buildup of gas pressure in their bodies makes it difficult or impossible to swim back down. If an angler releases the fish (sometimes necessary due to size, season or bag limit restrictions) and the fish does not survive, this is a dead discard or wasted fish. A descending device is a weighted hook, lip clamp, or box that holds the fish while it is lowered to a sufficient depth where the pressure of the surrounding water returns internal gas to equilibrium, which allows the fish to be released with a much higher likelihood of survival.

“The recreational fishing community spearheaded and for years has advocated for the use of descending devices and other best fishing practices to benefit America’s marine resources,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. “We are pleased NOAA Fisheries is officially requiring descending devices to be on board all vessels targeting snapper and grouper to tackle this problem of wanton waste. Special thanks to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for his leadership finalizing this important conservation win.”

Members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) include the American Sportfishing Association, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, Coastal Conservation Association, BoatUS, Congressional Sportfishing Foundation, National Marine Manufacturers Association, International Game Fish Association, and the Center for Sportfishing Policy.

Members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) are to be commended for their leadership on the descending device requirement. The Council carried out a deliberative public process and unanimously approved the requirement in September 2019. Long before the Council approved the descending device requirement for secretarial review, the Council actively promoted best fishing practices when catching and releasing fish. 

“It is encouraging that so many anglers were already taking it upon themselves to find ways to properly release fish to increase survival and better conserve these resources,” said Pat Murray, president of Coastal Conservation Association (CCA). “This requirement will not only enhance those efforts to eliminate all sources of discard and bycatch mortality but should motivate federal fisheries managers to assess those gains and translate them into longer seasons for anglers.”

The SAFMC, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and recreational fishing organizations have laid the groundwork for the successful implementation of the descending device requirement. The American Sportfishing Association and CCA led by example educating the angling public through their programs FishSmart Conservation Project and ReleaSense, respectively. The FWC also has a series of videos on their YouTube channel (FWC Saltwater Fishing) demonstrating how to use descending devices to treat barotrauma. Various descending devices have been manufactured for years and are available for retail sale. Thanks to the aforementioned educational efforts, thousands of anglers and guides already have been provided with descending devices at no charge.

“Requiring best fishing practices and descending devices is good conservation and responsible management of our natural resources,” said Kellie Ralston, southeast fisheries policy director for the American Sportfishing Association. “Having these requirements in place will reduce mortality of discarded fish and potentially increase access to many South Atlantic fisheries, including red snapper. We are grateful to the Council for taking action on this issue and to the Secretary of Commerce for making it a priority.” 

“Using descending devices anytime we fish for reef fish, regardless of the time of year, is an easy way that we, as individual anglers, can directly contribute to fisheries conservation and improved access to our fisheries,” said Chris Horton, senior director of fisheries policy for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “This rule is a positive step to begin addressing the lack of access to the rebuilding red snapper fishery in the South Atlantic.”

“Today’s decision requiring descending devices for a key sportfish population is a major victory for the conservation community, which has long advocated for this exact policy,” said Nicole Vasilaros, senior vice president of government and legal affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “Ensuring healthy and robust fish stocks has and always will be a top priority of the recreational boating and fishing community and we look forward to working with NOAA Fisheries to implement this critical conservation measure.”

This final rule also contains other best fishing practices including the use of non-offset and non-stainless steel circle hooks when fishing for snapper-grouper species with hook-and-line gear and natural baits north of 28° N latitude (approximately 25 miles south of Cape Canaveral), which is where most of this fishery occurs. The recreational fishing community supports the mandatory use of circle hooks to reduce discard mortality. The effectiveness of non-offset circle hooks has been proven through more than a decade of mandatory use in the Gulf of Mexico reef fish fisheries. Furthermore, all hooks are required to be non-stainless steel when fishing for snapper-grouper species with hook-and-line gear and natural baits throughout South Atlantic federal waters. Non-stainless steel hooks degrade faster than stainless steel hooks. Any fish released with an embedded non-stainless steel hook could have a greater chance of survival. 

“I’d encourage anglers to start today using a descending device and non-offset and non-stainless steel circle hooks. Don’t wait for July 15,” said Angers. “Let’s keep doing our part to ensure there are better days of fishing to come.”

The recreational fishing community stands ready to work with the SAFMC, NOAA Fisheries and anglers in the implementation of these important conservation measures.