Lawmakers team up to conserve reef fish in the Gulf
UPDATE: U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.) introduced a companion bill on November 21, 2019.
A coalition of recreational fishing and boating organizations is lauding the introduction of the DESCEND Act by Congressmen Garret Graves (R-La.) and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) The DESCEND Act of 2019, or the “Direct Enhancement of Snapper Conservation and the Economy through Novel Devices Act of 2019,” would require commercial and recreational fishermen to possess a descending device rigged and ready for use or venting tool when fishing for reef fish in Gulf of Mexico federal waters.
The recreational fishing and boating community has long advocated for the use of descending devices to reduce the mortality rate of prized reef fish such as snapper and grouper. When deep-water fish (more than 30 feet) are brought rapidly to the surface, they experience barotrauma—a condition where a buildup of gas pressure in their bodies makes it difficult or impossible to swim back down. If a fisherman releases the fish 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 will hold the fish while it is lowered to a sufficient depth to recover from the effects of barotrauma and release the fish. A venting tool is a sharpened, hollow device capable of penetrating the abdomen of a fish in order to release the excess gas pressure in the body cavity when a fish is retrieved from depth.
Possession of descending devices on board is required in other parts of the country, including several West Coast states and, starting next year pending final regulatory approval, in South Atlantic federal waters. However, similar regulatory action in the Gulf of Mexico has been held up due to concerns that such action would make ineligible an impending $30 million project related to barotrauma reduction, funded through the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration program.
The DESCEND Act would break through this bureaucratic roadblock by both allowing the $30 million project to proceed and requiring possession of descending devices or venting tools.
“Given the economic and cultural importance of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, we should be doing all we can to ensure the conservation of these fisheries,” said Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “Improving the survival of released fish has long been a sportfishing industry priority. We strongly support the DESCEND Act, and appreciate Reps. Graves and Huffman for their continued leadership on marine conservation policy.”
“The huge economic impact of the Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishery depends on an abundance of fish and fishing opportunities. We commend this bipartisan effort led by Congressmen Graves and Huffman for tackling wanton waste of America’s fishery resources,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. “By following simple best practices such as the use of descending devices and venting tools, recreational and commercial fishermen can do a little extra to return alive many more fish to their deep-water homes.”
“Discard mortality and commercial bycatch are significant, hidden drains on our marine resources that must be confronted by all stakeholders and this legislation is a targeted effort that aims to decrease the impact of recreational angling on important species,” said Ted Venker, conservation director for Coastal Conservation Association. “No one likes to throw back a fish, see it float off and know that it’s a wasted fish. Given the availability and effectiveness of descending devices to address one of the main factors impacting the availability of many species, particularly red snapper, this legislation makes sense and hopefully leads to greater awareness of the need to reduce all sources of discard and bycatch mortality.”
“Not only will ensuring that we can return fish to depth and minimize post-release mortality benefit fisheries conservation, it will increase angler access to those fisheries in the long-term,” said Chris Horton, fisheries program director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “Releasing more fish alive today will translate to more fish and more days on the water tomorrow.”
“Expanding the use of descending devices is sound conservation policy that will help ensure the health of fisheries for generations to come,” said Nicole Vasilaros, senior vice president of government and legal affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “The recreational boating and fishing community thanks Representatives Garret Graves and Jared Huffman for their leadership on this issue and we call on all members of Congress to support the bipartisan DESCEND Act.”
“Recreational anglers are the biggest champions of fish conservation in our country. One of the best ways to ensure survival for reef fish and to enhance conservation and grow the resource is by using descending devices to help fish adjust after being caught in deeper waters and avoid being eaten by predators in the process,” said Chris Macaluso, Center for Marine Fisheries director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We applaud the authors and co-sponsors of this bill for their continued work with recreational fishermen to improve fishery management and resource conservation.”
Top photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute via flickr.