Snapper Release Essentials

Words & images by: Alex Ciccozzi. First published in Fishing SA Magazine Dec/Jan 2019/20.


"Despite a snapper ban in place anglers will still have interactions with the species, and setting them free in the best possible shape is a must."

Recreational anglers are under constant pressure in our ever changing South Australian fishery. Whether it be through poor management structures over the years or implementation of restrictions that are sometimes unable to be backed up by sufficient scientific evidence. I'm sure I speak for all that we are slowly feeling the squeeze more and more each season!


The recent snapper management review is a prime example of yet another decision that us reccies have to contend with. Without getting too politically minded and launching into a debate around my own personal views, the fact of the matter remains that the new legislation has now been officially implemented as of November 1st 2019.


Under these new laws it is illegal to actively target and/or possess fish in the restricted zone applying to waters in the West Coast, Spencer Gulf and Gulf St Vincent regions. The same circumstances also apply to the South East zone between 1st November through to 31st January each year, however you are able to fish for snapper in this zone outside of the annual closure period.


PIRSA also states that catch and release fishing is strictly prohibited, and as per the general fishing guidelines if you are fishing in open snapper season (applicable to the SE zone only) you must cease to continue catching fish once your bag/boat limit for that day has been reached. SE anglers will also need to acquire a recreational harvest tag for any legal-sized snapper they catch however full details on this harvest tag system will be released prior to the season opening on 1st February 2020.


"The effects of barotrauma can be fairly obvious in snapper of any size when a swim bladder is inflated, but what remains invisible to the naked eye are the internal impacts"


SNAPPER INTERACTION


With new legal requirements comes a shift in dynamics that poses yet another challenge for recreational anglers. Here I refer to releasing snapper, and while this term is certainly nothing new to the recreational sector we need to be aware that the goal posts have shifted yet again.


Now before you jump out of your chair or spill your coffee I need to make it clear that I am not encouraging or promoting the practice of specifically targeting snapper and releasing them. That is a different argument and with the state of our current fishery in mind a completely irrelevant one at that.


Instead the new laws have ultimately left anglers in a position where they will need to safely and effectively release fish that are either accidentally hooked and caught during closed season or in a restricted zone, or those that are undersize and caught during open season in the SE.


The latter of the two is nothing new as releasing undersized snapper was common practice prior to the new guidelines being implemented. But the former scenario however will undeniably occur at times, particularly on the off shore deep water reefs where snapper regularly cohabitate with a plethora of other bottom dwelling species such as nannygai, blue morwong and gummy or school sharks to name a few.


While you can still potentially pigeon hole your efforts into areas that hold less snapper populations within restricted zones, the fact of the matter remains that it is largely lucky dip fishing. Any accidentally hooked snapper must be carefully handled and immediately returned to the water as per the new management guidelines. But in order for this to be done correctly, there's a lot of background knowledge and understanding required on our behalf to play a role in sustaining the fishery as best we can under these new regulations.

Photo: A pre-ban thumper red for the author. Holding big fish up for a photoshoot is not ideal if you're after an ideal release, with time out of the water vital.


SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE


Due to their anatomical makeup snapper are unfortunately predisposed to suffering from a condition called barotrauma. This scientific term simply refers to the effects that occur in a fish from a change in pressure gradient as it's brought up through the water column.


Snapper have an internal swim bladder which is designed to regulate buoyancy and deal with the varying pressures of life underwater. When pulled up through the water column from deeper water however they are unable to adapt to the changes quickly and as a response experience a few negative and potentially detrimental effects. The effects of barotrauma can be fairly obvious in snapper of any size when a swim bladder is inflated, but what remains invisible to the naked eye are the internal impacts.


Research has demonstrated internal bleeding, organ movement and even ruptured swim bladders as possible side-effects in fish that experience this phenomenon. A few limited studies exist in the realm of deep water snapper mortality following release after initial capture, but unfortunately the majority are fairly outdated and have yielded widely varying survival rate estimates. Some suggest a 66-78% survival rate, while others such as a paper by St John et al (2009) found a 69% mortality rate within four days for fish pulled from 45-65m. It therefore really is difficult to know who to believe exactly, such is the conflicting information.


Stronger evidence is documented however around releasing snapper in shallow water environments, particularly up to and around the 20m depth mark, and this tends to remain quite consistent across the research board.


A recent paper by Hughes et al (2018) has suggested that snapper are actually quite resilient to the effects of barotrauma, and they believe that there are external influences that play more of a role in their survival post capture. This includes injuries, exhaustion and stress as a result of the capture process, all of which were excluded anomalies through their testing method. This allowed them to solely study the barotrauma effect in isolation through hyperbaric chambers in c