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Submitted by jenna.swartz on Thu, 06/09/2022 - 11:41
Audio file
Podcast Series

Dive In with NOAA Fisheries

NOAA Fisheries conducts world-class science to support sustainable marine life and habitats. Our podcast, “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries,” is about the work we do and the people behind it.

Podcast Transcript
00:00:02:02 (John Sheehan)
If you’ve ever been deep water fishing, there might have been times you’ve reeled in a fish, and something wasn’t right with it.

00:00:09:04 (angler)
This fish is lethargic.

00:00:11:01 (angler)
The eyes started bulging.

00:00:12:05 (angler)
A bloated baleen, distended intestine.

00:00:15:02 (John Sheehan)
And worse, when you tried to release it back into the water, it just floated away on the surface.

00:00:19:08 (angler)
Ohhh man.

00:00:20:09 (angler)
There’s your floater.

00:00:21:04 (John Sheehan)
The fish is experiencing something called barotrauma. And as well as being pretty unpleasant, or deadly for the fish, it can seriously damage the whole health of a fishery. But now a new federal program is combatting barotrauma deaths by empowering anglers directly with free training and free gear. This is Dive In with NOAA Fisheries. I’m John Sheehan. Today we’re talking about barotrauma and a new program called Return Em Right is providing free training on the best practices for releasing fish suffering from barotrauma. And for anglers fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, free and ready-to-use gear that will help save these fish for another day. So, beyond not looking right, just what is barotrauma?

00:01:07:03 (Nick Haddad)
Barotrauma is a pressure related injury that fish experience when being reeled up from the surface. Gasses expand, organs are displaced, and they’re often left bloated and unable to return to depth on their own.

00:01:19:03 (John Sheehan)
That’s Nick Haddad. He’s the Sustainable Fisheries Communications Manager for Florida Sea Grant, one of the partner organizations responsible for Return Em Right.

00:01:27:09 (Sean Meehan)
Some of the characteristics of the fish undergoing barotrauma, they’re pretty evident.

00:01:31:03 (John Sheehan)
And that’s Sean Meehan, the Southeast Regional Recreational Fishing Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.
00:01:36:09 (Sean Meehan)
You will see this large organ come out of their mouth, which is their stomach. And that happens when the swim bladder expands and then it displaces the stomach. You often see bulging eyes. You can see the scales actually lift up from the skin. You can see sometimes the organs coming out of their vent. That is the hole on the bottom of the fish where feces and other things come out. So, you’ll see a lot of physical characteristics where the fish really doesn’t look right.

00:02:01:07 (John Sheehan)
Nick and Sean gave me a crash course in barotrauma and helped me understand just why it’s so damaging to fisheries.

00:02:07:09 (Nick Haddad)
We’re talking in the Gulf of Mexico up to ten million discards per year. Over a million or more may die per year due to barotrauma.

00:02:17:03 (John Sheehan)
That’s a serious waste. And it’s preventable. You just need the right tools and preparation to handle the situation. Enter Return Em Right. By the way, if you’re googling this, I’m not saying “return them right”. It’s “return em right”—R-E-T-U-R-N-E-M-R-I-G-H-T.

00:02:36:00 (Nick Haddad)
There’s a couple of different parts to the program. One of them is the education surrounding barotrauma, best fishing practices, best release practices. How can we help these fish survive release? We want to be a resource to anglers. But we also want to provide them the gear to be able to successfully release these fish.

00:02:53:05 (Sean Meehan)
The nice thing is that the education is it’s free to everyone.

00:02:55:00 (Nick Haddad)
Yeah. So, the training we actually have it available via our website. So, if you go to, and then from there we have an educational course, a short fifteen minute training that goes over general best practices, how to be situationally prepared to release fish. The meat of the course is on barotrauma mitigation through descending device use, through venting techniques, and then the course concludes with a shipping form for those eligible for gear. So, we can ship them their gear to their doorstep as fast as possible.

00:03:27:00 (John Sheehan)
I went ahead and took the online training myself. And it really is intuitive and informative. Okay, going to Get free gear, yes please. Now, I live in landlocked Pennsylvania. So, I wasn’t eligible for the free gear. I don’t fish in the Gulf of Mexico, next, I am not eligible for the gear. But I want to review best practices. Click, okay, start review.

I found the training no less interesting or valuable. And if you live in a Gulf state and fish in federal waters, go sign up and get that gear.

00:04:07:06 (online course angler)
All right Jeff. We just got to our fishing spot. What do I need to do to set up my rig so we can start releasing fish?

00:04:12:04 (online course instructor)
First thing you want to do once you get to the spot that you’re fishing is get your release rod ready.

00:04:17:06 (John Sheehan)
The format will probably be familiar. If you work in an office and have taken HR training courses, or if you need continuing education credits. But believe me, this isn’t hard to sit through like maybe some of those other classes. Recognizing when a fish is experiencing barotrauma is crucial to knowing that it needs additional help. Returning to depth, click on each information icon below to learn about it. All right let’s do it. The course took me under twenty minutes from the moment I typed into my browser to the second I completed the final frame. And I took my time.

The swim bladder will expand, often causing the stomach to be pushed out of the mouth of the fish. Super gross. Signs of barotrauma.

Incredible videos of fish suffering from and recovering from barotrauma and clear, actionable lessons on how to treat barotrauma using the right tools.

00:05:08:03 (online instructor)
This Red Grouper survived being caught and released in two hundred and fifteen feet of water because of the use of a descender device.

00:05:16:01 (John Sheehan)
So, here are some of the things that I learned in the training. Very broadly, there are two ways to deal with a fish showing signs of barotrauma. Release them at depth using a descending device or vent the fish using a hollow needle. Here’s Nick and Sean again.

00:05:31:08 (Nick Haddad)
Descending devices are typically grouped into three different categories. There’s your lip grip devices which is where the device attaches to the bottom jaw of the fish. There’s your inverted hook style, or there’s a general term called fish elevators which are like weighted crates or baskets that you can just lower multiple fish down to the bottom.

00:05:49:08 (John Sheehan)
One of the pieces of gear you can get, again for free in the Gulf states, is called the Seaqualizer.

00:05:56:07 (Sean Meehan)
The Seaqualizer is a type of lip grip device that actually has a built-in pressure sensor that releases automatically based on a set depth. Just a small device that clips on the lower jaw. And once you lower them down it pops open and they’re free to swim off on their own.

00:06:12:05 (John Sheehan)
Yeah, describe this thing for me. It’s kind of incredible. I expected some, like, l don’t know, much more complicated high technology device. It looks kind of like a bottle opener.

00:06:20:09 (Sean Meehan)
It does look like a bottle opener. It has a, you know, a six inch black cylindrical handle and a stainless steel kind of oval shape at the end that opens up and grabs the fish’s jaw. It’s a hydrostatic pressure trigger. And you can dial it at the top and set it, and there are other models that go even deeper up to three hundred feet. So, the angler, you know, knowing where they’re going to fish can have the right tool and release the fish and just send him or her back home. And you give them the best chance to survive, to be caught again, to reproduce again. And maybe when it gets bigger or more desirable it’s going to be ended for a meal for another family down the road.

00:06:57:03 (Nick Haddad)
We’re actually doing it pre-rigged to the weight needed to bring fish back to depth as well. So, all they have to do is take it out of our package, tie it on to a line, and they’re pretty much ready to go right then and there.

00:07:08:09 (John Sheehan)
They’re also giving away free inverted hooks, which is another type of descending device.

00:07:14:05 (Sean Meehan)
Right, inverted hook is—think of a large fishhook and it’s upside down, right. So, the weight is tied to the eye of the hook, gravity’s pointing it down. Place the hook through the lip of the fish and then you ease it into water head down, right. And as it goes down its eyes are going back into its head. And then once you stop that, the fish flies off the short end of the hook.

00:07:37:00 (John Sheehan)
The last type of descending device, which isn’t being given away, but you can easily buy or make yourself is a fish elevator.

00:07:44:00 (Sean Meehan)
This one is a simple breadbasket you might see at your local grocery store or a milk crate. And there’s a series of weights that are zip-tied or attached to the lip of it. And you can put multiple fish into that crate. And then you flip it upside down into the water. So, now this elevator is pulling these fish down to the seafloor and there’s a rope tied to the bottom of the milk crate. And once you get to the length of that rope it stops, the fish are recompressed, and they can just swim right out the bottom back into their habitat.

00:08:15:05 (John Sheehan)
And then there’s the technique of venting which is basically puncturing a fish’s swim bladder using a hollow needle like a syringe.

00:08:22:06 (Sean Meehan)
Venting works successfully if the fisherman or the practitioner knows exactly what they’re doing, knows the anatomy of the fish. Stabbing the fish really you know with a knife is not a great idea as you can well imagine. That is not beneficial to the health of the fish. So, you need to know where the swim bladder is. It’s behind the pectoral fin and below the midline of the fish if you will. You use a round needle. You don’t want a knife cause the knife is flat, doesn’t allow gas to escape out. But venting can be very quick. And I know a number of the head boat or party boat mates, they vent because they don’t have the time to send fish down on a separate fishing rod. They’re very good at it because they do it every day.

00:08:57:06 (Nick Haddad)
Yeah, there’s no doubt that a lot of captains and crew have gotten really good at venting and they’re able to do so successfully, quickly, efficiently, and get fish back in the water in a matter of seconds where it does work well. A lot of anglers aren’t that experienced. And when they’re not, and they don’t know the anatomy of the fish, they aren’t able to do it quickly. They spend too much time on the surface where barotrauma actually gets worse. It can be a big problem.

00:09:25:03 (John Sheehan)
And if you’re less experienced at quickly and safely venting a fish, the descending devices are the way to go. And again, if you live in a gulf state and fish in the Gulf of Mexico you can get free pre-rigged gear thanks to Return Em Right.

00:09:38:01 (Nick Haddad)
So, we are distributing a Seaqualizer, a standard Seaqualizer with releases at fifty, one hundred, or one hundred fifty feet of depth pre-rigged to a two or three pound weight. And we include another inverted hook descending device. So, it’s two descending devices and the weight necessary to descend.

00:09:56:05 (John Sheehan)
It’s also worth noting that you’re actually required by law to have a venting or descending device on your vessel if you’re fishing in the gulf. It’s part of a law call the Descend Act introduced by Congressman Garret Graves of Louisiana.

00:10:09:09 (Congressman Garret Graves)
It a huge opportunity for us to actually ensure the sustainability of these fisheries not just for us, but for our children and grandchildren for generations to come.

00:10:21:02 (John Sheehan)
But of course, as Nick and Sean rightly point out, just following the letter of the law isn’t really the point.

00:10:27:04 (Nick Haddad)
Just having a venting tool sitting in your cupholder is not going to directly benefit the fishery. What this program can really do is teach people why it’s important, show them how to use the gear, come up with a system in place on their boat so that you can descend fish or vent them quickly, efficiently, and spend more time fishing and less time worrying about releasing the fish.

00:10:53:07 (Sean Meehan)
Having this gear on board ready to go makes you legally compliant today. Using it correctly protects fisheries for generations to come.

00:11:02:06 (John Sheehan)
And speaking of protecting fisheries, the Return Em Right training is also a good opportunity to review some best practices generally for catch and release fishing.

00:11:10:08 (Nick Haddad)
Minimizing handling, minimizing air exposure, I can’t stress enough how important it is for all fisheries to get fish back in the water quickly. If you want a picture with the fish keep it in the water, lift it out, grab a picture and get it back in as quick as possible. You do want to get fish to the surface quickly. You don’t want to extend the fight times, especially offshore in the presence of predators whether there’s dolphin or sharks around. And one other thing is simply fishing for the fish that you can harvest. If you’re in a spot where you have to weed through fifteen to twenty undersized Red Snapper or undersized fish to get one keeper, you might want to consider moving so you don’t have to discard those fish.

00:11:50:07 (Sean Meehan)
Yeah, I can’t agree more with what Nick just said. Be prepared. You know you’re going to probably release some fish. So, have all your gear ready to go so when that fish does come, and you decide not to keep it you quickly handle it. And you know, those of us in the Gulf of Mexico summertime is really hot. In addition to being exposed to temperature also is a stressor on these fish. So, be prepared, be ready, know what you’re going to do, do it, send the fish back home.

00:12:16:09 (John Sheehan)
And if a fish looks dead, or if a fish isn’t showing signs of barotrauma is it still important to attach it to a descending device?

00:12:27:01 (Nick Haddad)
That’s a good question. So, sometimes what you can do is if you’re prepared, and you release a fish next to the boat and it swims down fine on its own that’s a good indicator that at that depth you’re fishing they might not need the additional help. But you do have to watch because sometimes you release them, it’ll look like they’ll swim down and then they’ll pop back up.

00:12:46:08 (Sean Meehan)
Yeah, and like Nick said earlier, you know, use heavy enough tackle to bring the fish up so it doesn’t expend all its energy on the fight if you will. And then by letting it go you’re going to have energy for that fish to get down if it needs it. If it’s expended all of its energy, it’s going to go down five, ten feet and it’s going to pop up thirty feet behind the boat and it’s going to struggle and then a bird comes by, or a shark comes by and eats it. So, generally if you’re fishing in thirty feet of water odds are you’re not going to be seeing a lot of fish with barotrauma. You’re fishing a hundred feet; you’re going to see a fair amount of fish with barotrauma.

00:13:20:05 (John Sheehan)
Return Em Right is a project a federal body such as NOAA Fisheries but also many partners across academia and citizens groups. Its origins go back to 2010 and the BP oil spill.

00:13:31:08 (Sean Meehan)
This project came out of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill settlement if you will. The Deep Water Horizon spill was in 2010. That’s affected the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the states around the Gulf of Mexico. Of the many restoration projects, this one was created to address impacts of fish that may have died. So, by fishermen being part of the solution, giving them the tools and the education we are now saving fish that but for these devices and but for this education would have died. And so now we’re trying to, you know, mitigate the lost services and the lost fishes and the lost fishing days by saving fish and giving more resources and more opportunities for angler moving forward.

00:14:13:05 (Nick Haddad)
You think about right now releasing a fish you could be supporting a fishery twenty years from now for your kids or the next generation, or two generations down the line of anglers. And it’s been incredibly successful. We can’t thank enough everyone who supported us including all the state agencies, the Sea Grants around the gulf, the gulf councils, the commission, the ASA’s, the CCA’s, the NGO’s, the universities. We’ve had an overwhelming amount of support which has made this launch wildly successful. We’ve had over five thousand anglers complete our training just in the past three weeks alone. So, we’re off to a hot start and we’re really hoping to continue to build the momentum through the summer and get anglers gear and get them educated to support our fisheries.

00:14:58:05 (John Sheehan)
Nick Haddad and Sean Meehan, thanks so much for talking with me.

00:15:01:02 (Sean Meehan)
Pleasure. Thanks for having us. We really appreciate this opportunity to talk about a great program.

00:15:05:04 (Nick Haddad)
We’re happy to be here. And thanks again for having us.

00:15:07:02 (John Sheehan)
Nick is the Sustainable Fisheries Communication Manager for Florida Sea Grant. And Sean is the Southeast Regional Recreational Fishing Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries. To take the course, get free gear or just learn a little more about barotrauma, visit That’s R-E-T-U-R-N-E-M-R-I-G-H-T dot O-R-G. To brush up on best catch-and-release practices go to our website I’m John Sheehan and this has been Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.

00:15:47:09 (Podcast Ends)
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Hear how a federal program is providing free gear and training to anglers to reduce barotrauma in Gulf of Mexico fisheries.
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