Fishing is a favorite pastime of Florida’s residents and visitors. Fishing efforts in Florida have increased dramatically over the past decade, and are continuing to increase. In 2011, Florida’s recreational anglers caught roughly 121 million marine fish, 74 million of which were released. Fish are released for a variety of reasons, but increasing a fish’s chances of survival after it is released will help ensure fish populations remain sustainable for future generations. Anglers can use various fish handling methods and gear to increase the survival of released fish. Get involved by reading more about how to increase post-release fish survival. 

What Causes Angling Mortality in Fish?
Fish may die after release for a variety of reasons. The most common causes of post-release mortality are physiological stress on the fish resulting from struggle during capture, injuries caused by the hook, and mishandling of the fish by the angler. Unfortunately, some fish may die after release even though they appear unharmed and despite efforts by the angler to revive the fish.

Fish that struggle intensely during capture are usually exhausted and stressed from the accumulation of excessive amounts of lactic acid in their muscles and blood. The stress of capture may be more severe for larger fish such as tarpon, therefore, using the proper weight-class tackle, landing your catch quickly, and releasing the fish as quickly as possible increases the fish’s chance of survival. Bringing an exhausted fish out of the water is like asking a triathlon winner to jump back in the water and hold their breath---they both need oxygen to recover!

Fish that are reeled to the surface from deep water may face additional challenges that could decrease their chance of survival. If you have caught a fish that you do not intend to keep or that cannot be harvested, follow the steps below to increase the chances the fish you release will survive.

Know Before You Go
Knowing before you go is an important step in increasing the survivability of fish you release.
Decide beforehand which fish are to be kept and immediately release all others.
Do not engage in a prolonged debate over whether or not to release a fish after it has been landed.

Make sure you can identify the fish in your area, specifically the fish you are targeting. Have a resource to help you identify fish you are not familiar with such as the Fishing Lines magazine or a saltwater fish field guide.

Always know (or have access to) the current regulations for the fish you target. Knowing how to measure fish, the size limits, bag limits and seasons minimizes handling time when determining whether or not you can keep the fish you caught.

Use tackle heavy enough to bring the fish in quickly, and avoid using multi-hook rigs or lures.
If you have a treble hook, you can remove some of the hooks and flatten the barbs. This makes it easier to remove the hooks from the fish and causes less damage. 
Finally, make sure you have all the proper tools and gear on your vessel before heading out for the day. 

Check out the Saltwater Fishing Checklist for items you can use for a successful day on the water!

You can increase the survival rate of fish you release by using proper handling techniques. 

Handle fish as little as possible and only with wet hands.

  • Match tackle to the targeted fish to land it quickly and minimize stress on the fish. Large species such as sharks, billfish and tarpon should be brought alongside the boat within 20 minutes of being hooked. If you are consistently landing exhausted fish that require extensive efforts to resuscitate, consider using heavier tackle.   
  • If a fish needs to be handled, wet your hands. This reduces the amount of fish slime removed from the fish. Fish slime protects the fish from infection and aids in swimming.
  • A knotless, rubber-coated landing net is ideal when handling a fish since it supports the fish’s body weight. 
  • Remember, fish swim horizontally! Never hold a fish by its jaw, gills or eyes.
  • Large fish, such as tarpon, should not be boated or dragged over the gunwale of the boat because this could injure the internal organs of the fish. 
  • When holding a fish that has teeth, use a gripping tool to support the front of the fish, and use the other hand under the belly to evenly support the fish's weight.
  • Sometimes it’s better to carefully remove the hook so it can be released, and other times it’s best to cut the line as close to the hook as possible while the fish is in the water – especially if it’s large or agitated.
  • Never hold on to or tow a fish not allowed to be harvested to a different location to weigh or measure it. 
  • Know and follow current fishing regulations and how to accurately measure fish
  • Reduce handling by using a dehooking tool. Dehooking tools allow anglers to quickly release their catch while minimizing injuries and handling time.  
  • Never “toss” a fish back! Always release your fish head first into the water. This allows water to be forced through the mouth and over the gills, essentially giving it a “breath of fresh air.”

Photographs and Video

Capturing a catch on camera is a great way to share your experience with others and to create lasting memorabilia. 

It is okay to take a picture of a fish that is not allowed to be harvested while it’s in the process of being released, but it still must be let go immediately after. A fish should not be held out of the water for long periods of time just for the purpose of taking a picture.

Remember, when taking a picture of your catch, hold the fish horizontally and support its weight with both hands. This decreases the possibility of damaging the fish internally.

It is best to designate someone on the boat as the photographer, that way when an angler hooks up with a fish, the photographer is ready to go.

Whenever possible, take pictures of the fish while in the water. Tarpon should always be left in the water if they are more than 40 inches long. 

Reviving Fish

If the fish doesn't immediately swim away or it is lethargic or erratic, some "resuscitation" may be needed.

Revive exhausted but otherwise healthy fish by first placing the fish in the water, one hand under the belly, and the other hand holding the bottom lip or tail. If the vessel is anchored, point the fish head-first into the current to gently force water through the mouth and over the gills. If the vessel is not anchored or there isn’t a current, hold the fish in the water alongside the boat and gently nudge the boat into gear, forcing water through the gills of the fish. If an angler is fishing from a non-motorized vessel, such as a kayak, place the fish in the water, hold its front lip, (you can use a gripping tool if the fish has teeth), and move the fish in a figure “8” motion.

Never move the fish back and forth in the water. This will not allow water to flow properly through the gills of the fish!

Other Ways to Conserve Fishery Resources

Many of our most popular recreationally targeted species are regulated and sometimes must be returned to the water. Most anglers would agree that anything we can do to minimize harm to fish being released will benefit the resource in the long term.

However, we don’t want to discourage the fun and excitement of catching fish and documenting the experience, whether for records or the personal satisfaction that comes from sharing the experience with friends and family. That’s why we want to inform the public about safe fish handling practices and the harm that can be caused to fish that are handled roughly or held out of the water too long.

Without ethical anglers following fisheries regulations, there would soon be little of value left to catch. Florida’s anglers should be proud of their conservation efforts. They have helped to restore or sustain several valuable fisheries, including snook, red drum and spotted seatrout. As the number of anglers continues to grow, it becomes more important than ever to release those fish that cannot be harvested in as good a condition as possible. The next angler will thank you for it.

"Limit your take, don't take your limit!"

The Ethical Angler:

  • Can identify most of the species commonly caught in their area and knows the current regulations for each.
  • Understands the legal requirements for licenses and stamps.
  • Appreciates the importance of habitat and a clean environment. 
  • Protects habitat and wildlife by following safe boating practices such as knowing thewaterways, keeping a slow wake when necessary, and poling through seagrass beds.
  • Keeps trash out of the water, disposing of monofilament fishing line, napkins, food containers and other waste in a proper receptacle ashore.
  • Knows how to fight and release fish in a way that gives the fish the best possible chance at survival after release.
  • Abides by the law and is not afraid to report those who do not.

Practice and share these techniques! Teach your children and inexperienced anglers these few simple procedures to help ensure abundant fish populations for the future. View our brochure on Catch and Release!

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