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"
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.
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 controlled environments.
Hughes et al also suggested that previous research had been conducted in scenarios that were most likely responsible for mortality rate figures as opposed to the effects of barotrauma alone. This included capturing and immediately deploying fish into cages in highly stressful and adverse environments, thus skewing the study results. There was a clear link in the study that a delayed or lack of re-pressurisation after capture resulted in an increase in fish mortality, indicating that a quick release back to the depths was imperative. Time is paramount here and fish also need to be handled correctly in order for these odds to remain favourable, as we will discuss.
HANDLE WITH CARE
Handling snapper correctly is a very delicate process and a lack of awareness is oft en the downfall of many fishos trying to do the right thing. Any fish intended for release should be treated in the best way possible, and some general rules of thumb can be applied in order to maximise the chance of survival.
Always net and support the weight of a fish before bringing it on-board, or alternatively if a safe release can be performed boat-side then this is an even better option.
Keep in mind the anglers safety as well in this instance though, with sharp hooks and the ever likely tax man lurking below.
Landing net technology these days has kept the integrity of fish in mind with many knotless styles existing on the market that are designed to minimise harm. When physically handling the fish to remove any hooks it is advisable to first wet your hands or use a wet rag. If hooks can’t safely be dislodged or removed then they may need to be left in. Although this should be treated as a case by case scenario and at the discretion of the angler to assess.
More applicable to shallow water environments it’s encouraged to swim snapper boat-side until the fins are erect and it is visibly ready to return. In deep water however release weights are pivotal for the best chance of survival. Homemade versions can be simply knocked up with a few 6-8oz leads, a coil of rope and a hook with the barb crushed. Alternatively they can be purchased already made.
I suspect along with the new laws coming into force we may start to see a few more of these popping up around local tackle shops, or maybe even becoming a mandatory regulation to carry on-board in off shore environments.
Venting is another technique designed to assist with the release of snapper in deeper waters, but it is less commonly practiced. This technique deflates an inflated swim bladder by inserting a sharp tool (ideally a hypodermic needle) at the intersection of the 5th dorsal spine and the top of the pecfin. The release of air in the bladder means the fish should be able to return back to the depths much easier against the pressure gradient.
While the research suggests some good results in snapper mortality through this technique, the main concern is that its entirely dependent on the skill of the operator and thus a higher mortality rate can often ensue. So in essence dont go jabbing sharp objects into the fish unless you are completely confident or skilled in knowing what to do.
ANATOMICAL HOOKING POSITION & BEST PRACTICE
Anatomical hooking position is also a major player in snapper survival, and this term basically refers to where exactly the fish is hooked. According to one study gut hooked fish only had a 20% chance of survival, while only 60% of bleeding fish survived. This was compared to a 91% survival rate of the non-bleeders in the same study. Circle hooks will be largely preferred when chasing reds in the SE zone during open season or even when fishing off shore locations where you may encounter the odd snapper amongst your primary target species.
There is a slight art to using circle hooks correctly and this involves snelling them but running the trace back through the hook-eye from the posterior (back) side. This causes the hook to turn around on itself more readily. Whereas simply tying on with a uni knot or feeding your snell trace through the incorrect side of the hook eye, will increase the chances of it being swallowed which I've seen occur on quite a few occasions.
Crushing hook barbs when fishing both baits and lures is also highly recommended to further minimise the damage irrespective of where the hook finds its mark. If encountering a school of snapper in deep water amongst the other reefies then it is recommended to leave the spot in search of fresh pastures.
Alternatively if you are specifically targeting snapper in the SE zone during open season and keep hooking undersized fish then it would also pay to move on in search of legal fish to reduce the risk of further damage.
Education is the key, and while there is certainly a wealth of information available out there in regards to snapper care we as recreational anglers need to be aware of it in the first place. So please endeavour to utilise some of the above tips and procedures if you are required to return any snapper back to the water for whatever reason. This will at least aid in somewhat maximising the chance of these fish surviving under the current snapper management regulations that we are currently enduring, and hopefully the effort will all be worth it one day.
Snapper Release Essentials, written by Alex Ciccozzi, was first published in Fishing SA Magazine Dec/Jan 2019/20. Get access to the digital back issue for $1.99 on PocketMags. Click here to find out more.