Saltwater anglers in Florida catch and release reef fish People who fish in Florida and in federal waters are required to have special gear on board to help ensure groupers, snappers and other reef fish survive when they're returned to the water.

After catch and release, here's how to make sure reef fish survive

After catch and release, here's how to make sure reef fish survive

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University of Miami Marine Sciences student Lauren Hayes with her catch, a 7 or 8 pound mutton snapper, which was released and returned to its reef habitat more than 100 feet below the surface. Greg Allen/NPR hide caption

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Greg Allen/NPR

University of Miami Marine Sciences student Lauren Hayes with her catch, a 7 or 8 pound mutton snapper, which was released and returned to its reef habitat more than 100 feet below the surface.

Greg Allen/NPR

MIAMI — Saltwater recreational fishing is a big part of Florida's tourist economy. Anglers take more than 40 million saltwater fishing trips each year in Florida in hopes of hooking a grouper, snapper or mahi mahi.

But strict regulations on seasons and the species that can be taken mean that more than half of the fish caught on a typical trip are returned to the water.

Fishing guides, charter boat captains and marine fisheries officials are spreading the word how to make sure the fish that are released live to fight another day. From Texas to North Carolina, a focus is on how to safely return reef fish — species that live on the bottom like grouper, snapper and hogfish.

On a recent day on Florida's Biscayne Bay, Captain Wayne Conn motored a few miles offshore, with Miami Beach's skyline in the distance. About 20 anglers are on board the 75-foot boat. It's not long before one of the fishermen makes a catch. It's a mutton snapper, a prized fish. But, it's small and under the limit. Just 17 inches long. It has to go back in the water. But they can't be just thrown back in.

University of Florida marine fisheries specialist Angela Collins says when reef fish that spend their time in deep water are brought to the surface, the gases in their bodies expand, sometimes greatly.

They can experience a condition known as barotrauma. "That's when you see the fish's eyes bulging out of its head or its stomach popping out of its mouth," Collins says. "That gas basically ... expands and has to go somewhere. And that obviously can be detrimental to the fish, in some cases lethal."

In Florida and in federal waters, anglers are required to have descending tools like this one. It's a weight that's clipped to the fish's lower lip to quickly lower it 100 feet or more below the surface. Greg Allen/NPR hide caption

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Greg Allen/NPR

In Florida and in federal waters, anglers are required to have descending tools like this one. It's a weight that's clipped to the fish's lower lip to quickly lower it 100 feet or more below the surface.

Greg Allen/NPR

People who fish in Florida and in federal waters are now required to have special gear on board to help ensure reef fish survive once they're returned to the water. That includes venting tools, essentially long needles, that are used to pierce the fish's swim bladder in its abdomen, releasing the pressure.

But it's also important to get the fish back down to its habitat on the bottom, 100 feet or more below the surface. Collins attaches something called a descending tool to the undersized mutton snapper. It's a weight she clips to the fish's lower lip before lowering it slowly back into the water.

"This just shoots him down really fast," she says. "It's closed until this gets to 100 feet. And it pops open. And that just basically lets the fish swim off."

The ship moves to a different spot in deeper water and someone soon gets a hit. On deck, Conn gives a whoop. "Check it out now, that fish is special," he says. It's a 7- or 8-pound mutton snapper. To Conn, that's a keeper, "a great eating fish." But Lauren Hayes, who's studying marine conservation at the University of Miami decides to release it. "I love animals and it's just so beautiful that I don't want to be the one to kill it," she says. "I want it to experience its happiness in the ocean."

One of the deck hands pierces the fish's swim bladder and uses a descending tool to lower it over the side. "There he is, going down guys ... beautiful," Conn says as it splashes into the water.

Conn has operated charters and party boats out of Miami for more than 40 years. Recreational saltwater fishing in Florida has changed a lot during that time. "It used to be about killing a lot of fish." But then he says, "Rules and regs came in. Some folks quit because the rules and regs, they didn't want to comply. They didn't think it was right. They didn't fish as much when they weren't able to come home with as many fish." Now, he says, people come out for a day on the water, to be with their friends and to maybe come home with a fish. Conn says, "It's fishing just for what it is, it's about the experience."

Despite an increase in regulation, interest in fishing is growing, sparked in part industry watchers say by a post-COVID spike that has boosted boat and gear sales. That's one reason why there's a push to spread the word about how to make sure that the fish that are released survive to be caught on another day.

About two dozen anglers fish on Captain Wayne Conn's 75-foot boat on Florida's Biscayne Bay not far from Miami Beach. Greg Allen/NPR hide caption

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Greg Allen/NPR

About two dozen anglers fish on Captain Wayne Conn's 75-foot boat on Florida's Biscayne Bay not far from Miami Beach.

Greg Allen/NPR