This week, I watched a pack of reef sharks rip apart an undersized amberjack that floated at the surface after release. I didn't feel remorseful for two reasons:
First, sharks have to eat, too. No sense begrudging one of nature's most efficient predators for making sure nothing goes to waste.
Second, and most important, we released the fish when we determined it wouldn't meet the 28-inch minimum fork length. The amberjack was not suffering the bloating effects of an expanded swim bladder — a shark had bitten the fish during its fight, leaving it crippled and unable to dive.
Difficult as it was, releasing the ill-fated fish to its certain doom was the right call. Keeping an undersized fish to spare it a violent death is no less illegal than throwing an extra snapper in the box and claiming you miscounted.
Moreover, fish suffer deaths at the jaws of sharks, barracuda, kingfish and wahoo every day. That's the balance of nature.
The key point for anglers in all scenarios is to avoid shifting that balance unnecessarily. That means adhering to a handful of principles influencing the outcome of a live release.
Handle with care
The simple stuff addresses post-catch handling: Don't touch the eyes or gills because these sensitive areas are easily damaged. And avoid rubbing away the fish's protective slime coating, which helps protect against infections.
For best results, use a damp towel or a fish-gripping glove to establish a firm hold on either the jaw, or for toothy fish, the outer gill covers.
Imagine you're on a game show and your cash prize decreases with every second the fish is out of the water. That means preparing cameras and posing areas before the fish hits the deck.
Catching big fish on light tackle offers an undeniably rewarding challenge — often at the expense of a dangerously exhausted fish. For inshore and offshore pursuits, use tackle that is sufficient for catching fish in a reasonable amount of time.
Extended struggles not only drain fish of energy, they prolong the window of vulnerability to sharks, barracuda, dolphins and other opportunistic predators.
If those predators catch a meal on their own, good for them. That's the food chain working as it should. But when predators catch released fish that are too tired to escape, that's an unfair advantage.
A common mistake made by well-meaning anglers involves loosening drags or otherwise reducing their fighting pressure when they spot a predator moving in to attack their hooked fish.
Give a redfish slack and it'll continue running away from the boat — especially when dolphins threaten. The same is true of a snapper chased by barracuda or goliath grouper.
In truth, a hooked fish rarely avoids these attacks, and dragging around a hook and line simply impedes the escape and prolongs the inevitable. In almost all cases, you're better off boating a fish as quickly as possible and then releasing it to compete in healthy condition.
Properly releasing under-sized, oversized, over-the-limit or out-of-season fish bears great impact on the future of a fishery because release mortality rates — the numbers of fish that die as a direct result of being caught and released — factor into management decisions.
To help ensure minimum release mortality, the National Marine Fisheries Service recently implemented a set of requirements covering all species of reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
As of June 1, reef fish anglers must use nonstainless steel circle hooks, which are easy to remove, and they dissolve in saltwater if left in a fish's mouth. And reef anglers must have a dehooking tool for removing hooks as quickly as possible, preferably with the fish in the water.
Lastly, reef anglers must have venting tools — sharpened, hollow instruments that enable fishermen to deflate fish that surface with expanded air bladders. When a fish's air bladder expands during a rapid rise to the surface, the expansion pushes the stomach out through the mouth, bulges the eyes and keeps the fish from returning to the bottom.
The fish can recover and survive if deflated properly.
For proper deflation, lay a bloated fish on its side, hold the head securely and insert the point of a venting tool into the body cavity at a 45-degree angle under a scale about 1-2 inches behind the base of the pectoral (side) fin.
You don't want to poke the fish too deeply, so insert the point slowly and stop when you hear the gas venting through the tool. Gently pressing the fish's side helps expel the gas.
As long as the law of the land allows licensed anglers to keep a few fish for dinner, there's nothing wrong with doing so. But those that must be released should return to the water in the best condition possible.
For information on releasing fish, visit www.flseagrant.org or www.catchandrelease.org.