How to vent A Red Snapper

One of the most important things we can do to a reef fish that is suffering from Barotrauma is to know how to vent them.  With so many people fishing for reef fish off Alabama, there are a lot of fish that are caught and released.  This is due to catch and release, trying to catch a larger fish and letting smaller fish go.   If you want to release your fish, there is a proper way to vent them.    Since technology has advanced so far, there are fish descenders that can now be purchased.  Fish descenders take fish back down to depths where they were caught, so the water pressure equalizes and the fishes internal organs return to normal.

Every reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico has what is called a swim bladder. This bladder is filled with gases that allow the fish to remain buoyant or neutral in the water column. The swim bladder is located on fish much like a human’s diaphram is. It runs along the inner lining of the guts of the fish, from just behind the mouth all the way down to and above the anus of the fish. Popular Orange Beach reef fish like Red Snapper, Amberjack, Vermilion Snapper, Grouper and Triggerfish often come to the surface of the water after being hooked and angled quickly to the surface of the water. When they arrive, their stomachs are often sticking out their mouth or their intestines protruding through their anus. What has happened to these fish is they were caught too deep in the water column and the gases in their swim bladder does not have time to be released, thus they expand rapidly and force internal organs to become extruded from their bodies. This is what we call barotrauma. Scuba divers experience the same effects if they swim to the surface from depth and try and hold their breath. The air in your lungs can’t be held in because the gas is expanding too rapidly. If you held your breath during an ascent, you would do severe damage to your lungs and internal organs. That is why scuba divers are always taught to exhale when ascending. Fish are not taught this technique and fight for their lives when hooked. They end up being dragged to the surface suffering from Barotrauma and exhaustion.

Barotrauma in Reef Fish Explained

Barotrauma occurs when fish are rapidly brought from deep water (over 33′) to the surface and the gases that are in the fishes blood, tissues or in their swim bladder expand faster than they can naturally be expelled. This is what we call the “over inflation of the swim bladder.” The swim bladder expands as the fish is reeled toward the surface and because it is in a tough internal organ, the expanded bladder pushes internal organs out of place and can possibly cut off blood supply to the fishes vital organs. If an angler fails to relieve this pressure, it can lead to mortality of the fish. During the summer months in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, temperatures run anywhere from 85 to 87 degrees farenheit. That means that there is oxygen depletion in the water’s upper level anyway. When you catch a fish during the summer months, it most likely means the fish is suffering from exhaustion when hitting the surface. When a fish is released without having the swim bladder bled down, leaves the fish suffering from exposure to extreme sunlight and or dolphin or game fish predation. Predation is a fancy word for getting eaten by something higher up on the food chain before the fish can get back down to the depth where it can escape from predators.

Venting Reef Fish - To Vent or Not to Vent, that is the question?

One of the most popular ways to help a fish return to the bottom of the sea is to vent their swim bladder, thus taking the pressure off the internal organs so the fish can naturally swim back down to depths where he came from. Venting is nothing more than placing a needle or hollow tool through the scales and rib cage area into the swim bladder, thus allowing the gases to escape rapidly. The best venting tool on the market is made by Team Marine USA.  It is sharp and safe to use because it has a retractable needle.  Having a venting tool is required by law here in the United States, but the law does not say you have to vent every fish. One of the biggest problems we have is anglers being not properly trained to vent fish. The fish ends up getting stuck four or five times and having internal organs punctured in the process. Any vented fish that is improperly vented, is almost certain to meet his maker sooner than later.

Even though venting is the preferred method of treating barotrauma, there are other ways to get fish back down to depth. These other methods are called fish descenders. I have tried a few of them and they are far from perfect. They either work great in shallow water or you can’t feel the release in deep water. An angler may end up spending countless minutes trying to get a fish back down to depth to be released.

Using common sense as anglers is very important. Not every fish needs to be vented. Here are some ways to tell if a fish needs to be vented.

  • Look at the fish when it comes to the surface. If it is laying on his side and barely moving, eyes bulging out of the sockets or visible stomach turned inside out and sticking out of his mouth, that means this fish is extremely tired and is suffering from barotrauma.

  • Use a dip net or a wet fish net and quickly pull the fish out of the water and place him on a wet towel or somewhere soft so you do not damage the slime protective layer on the fish. Visually look and see if the stomach of the fish is protruding out the fishes mouth. Also look for bloating of the sides of the fish or intestines sticking out the anus of the fish. That means the fish needs to be vented quickly and returned to the water so it has a chance to survive. If you are going to keep the fish for dinner, by all means, put him in the cooler. If you are catching and releasing, you need to vent him quickly.

  • If everyone on the boat is pulling up fish that have apparent barotrauma, please change your fishing tactics and fish higher in the water column. You need to fish in the first atmosphere or 33′ from the surface in order to do the least harm. Reef fish do pretty good if caught in depths of 66′ or less, which is the second atmosphere. We see most of our problems with barotrauma when people are fishing on the bottom of 100′ or greater. This is why bottom fishing is becoming a bad term among fishermen. It is the implied fishing on the bottom that hurts the fish and caused barotrauma. We encourage you to use chum buckets or whatever you can to keep from fishing deep in the water when fishing for reef fish like Red Snapper, Trigger Fish, Amberjack and Shallow Water Grouper.

  • We always encourage you to leave any fish that you have no plans on consuming, in the water to minimize the effects of over handling. If you pull a fish out of the water by the leader, all of the internal organs press together because of gravity. This can hurt the internal organs of the fish, which can lead to its death. If the fish is not floating, simply de-hook the fish and allow it to go back down. If the fish floats after being released, go back with a net and get her with a net and vent properly.

Choosing the Right Venting Tool or Fish Descender

Ever since the law said that anglers must have a venting tool on board their vessel, we have seen an increase in the number of devices being sold. One of the first methods were shot needles like you would find at a doctors office being distributed by Sea Grant. The only problem is that the needles have small openings unless you get a 12 gauge one and are very sharp. If you were not careful, you could end up sticking yourself or puncturing the fishes other internal organs, thus causing more damage to the fish. If you really want to try something cool, use the Ark Dehooker Company. 

When you bring a fish to the surface and it is apparent that it is suffering from barotrauma, it is important to quickly vent the fish and get him back in the water. Look at this diagram below of a grouper. It shows the placement of the air bladder so you will know where to stick the venting tool. Most of the time, you simply lay the pectoral fin down along side the reef fish and gently insert the needle at a 45 degree angle into the abdomen of the skin until you go deep enough to puncture the swim bladder. The gases will escape and sound like a tire with the air pressure bleeding off. The psssst sound will last until all of the gases are releived. If you see the visible signs of barotrauma as listed above, gently move the needle around upward until you feel the air bladder and hear it begin letting air out. You wil quickly see the stomach deflate and go back inside the mouth of the fish. If it is a trigger fish, you will quickly see the intestines go back inside the anal cavity. Venting the wrong way will almost certainly result in the fish not surviving. By all means, be gentle with these fish and get them back in the water.