Offshore fish conservation with Nick Haddad of Return 'Em Right

We had a great conversation on offshore fish release tactics and fisheries conservation with Nick Haddad of Return 'Em Right.

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Offshore fish conservation with Nick Haddad of Return 'Em Right

It doesn't matter if you’re catching for the grill, or catch and release fishing, based on regulations we will all have to return fish back into the water. Releasing fish isn’t always as simple as throwing a fish back into the water, however. Offshore anglers especially need to know how to release deep water fish. Brotrauma is the condition these fish suffer from after abrupt pressure changes and any fish that isn't taken care of properly has almost no chance of survival.

Nick Haddad is the sustainable fisheries communications manager for Return 'Em Right. The program is dedicated to providing the average angler with the knowledge and equipment necessary to return fish back to deep water and drastically increase their chances of survival.

Fishbrain caught up with Nick at ICAST 2022 to talk about fishing conservation and why a few extra steps today can ensure plentiful fisheries decades from now. 

Click here to learn more about Return 'Em Right's free descending device program for offshore anglers.

 Fishbrain: What’s your role at Return 'Em Right?

Nick Haddad: I'm in charge of everything like public facing communications, education outreach, so I do all the blogs, I do live radio shows, I do presentations at fishing clubs, I’ve talked to fisheries management councils, so any of that stuff I’m usually doing.

FB: How did your group transition from public to an NGO?

NH: So we're technically through the University of Florida so we are not fully an NGO but I actually came from the IGFA, the International Game Fish Association in charge of all the fishing world records. Then from there I started helping them with communication. 

My passion lies in connecting anglers with the science because a lot of anglers don't understand fisheries management in the science world and as someone who has that background I can relate to anglers and help them understand what fisheries management is, why it's important to do these things.

Then you have to talk and explain things and let them know what is in it for the angler. What's in it for me is what people need to know. What's in it for them is the lower the discard mortality rate is,  the more fish they get to keep. To sum it up, the less you are unintentionally killing, the more you get to keep in the future. And not only do you get to keep them in the future, but the ones that are surviving contribute to the fishery ten years down the line.

FB: How do you convince an angler who wants to catch their limit today, that these extra steps they should take when releasing a fish are good for the fishery decades from now?

NH: So our slogan is to earn another fight. That speaks to how properly releasing a fish is currency for the future. So if you release a red snapper, or grouper, out of season, and then you can catch it again while it's in season, you’re earning another fight with that fish and at the same time  that same fish is spawning and contributing to your future 10-15 years down the line.

Sometimes that is the harder part for anglers to digest the message that ‘if I do this now, I will help my kids fishery in 10 years.’ It’s hard for people to contemplate that time, it shouldn’t be because there's people that have lived through a fishery being healthy, then watched it crash completely and then lived through the rebuild like the red snapper. The people who have lived through every stage, from healthy to completely crashed to rebuilt, generally get it and agree this is actually important. THey have seen the bad and know we need to take care of it while it's healthy.

FB: Do you guys primarily work with the release gear, or are you all purpose safe fish handling techniques? 

It's primarily barotrauma and offshore fishing for snapper, grouper, reef fish species. In the Gulf of Mexico there's 31 federally managed reef fish species because they're most commonly targeted and are affected most by barotrauma. So our program’s focus is on just helping anglers understand what they need to do to make sure the fish they release survive, grow, spawn and fight again. It's in their best interest because it helps them out not only in the short term but the long term, as well. 

"It's crazy that descending devices have been around for 10-15 years, yet the majority of people who fish in the Gulf of Mexico don't know what they are, let alone use them properly."

FB: What are some other methods for venting a fish and why are descending devices a better option?

NH: So traditionally, anglers would vent the fish by using a venting tool by inserting it behind the back fin, allowing the gas to escape so they can swim down. But, you're also putting holes in them by using a sharp object on a rocking boat. It's not a great idea, because if you don't know exactly what you're doing, and you don't do it quickly you can cause a lot more harm than good. 

It actually used to be a requirement from 2008 to 2013 in the Gulf of Mexico, but they repealed it because so many people were doing it wrong. So we're really emphasizing the use of descending devices because it's pretty hard to mess up.

Like this seaequalizer for example, clamp it on their lower jaw, drop them down and those gasses recompress naturally so they don't have to injure the fish at all. Whatever depth you decide to set the seaequalizer to, it has a hyper-static pressure sensor in it so as soon as it is at that depth it pops open and releases the fish. 

FB:This can't be cheap to send out for free, like you do, so where do you all get your funding to do such a project?

NH:The funding came through the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. The settlement runs from the 2010 oil spill. So reef fisheries with snapper and grouper were affected by the oil spills and the settlement is a project trying to restore fishers impacted by it.l

It's cool because it gives back to anglers for free, but it also gives back to the fisheries too. 

So something we deal with sometimes on FIshbrain is a general mishandling of fish that are meant to be released.

FB: Do you all do any education on best general practices when handling fish?

NH: Yes, the very first part of our training is general best practices and things you should do regardless of the species. We advocate to reduce handling, minimizing air exposure, minimizing your fight time, using circle hooks so fish don’t get gut hooked. All those general best practices are just as important offshore, but when you are offshore, you need other considerations as well. 

I think working quickly to just get fish back in the water  is one of the most important things, however. Especially here in Florida and barotrauma actually gets worse the longer a fish is on the deck. We’ve all seen a water bottle in your car on a hot day. It expands and is steamy because pressure and volume are related to temperature as well.

FB: At what depth does barotrauma start becoming an issue?

NH: Typically at 50 to 65 feet in that range is when you start to see some symptoms but it's species dependent. For example, hogfish can get barotrauma around 40 to 45 feet. 

Just knowing the signs and symptoms, like if its eyes are bulging, or scales are bubbling, or if it feels bloated, can be a great advantage to the fish. A fish that floats off has almost no chance of survival.

I think most anglers are conservationists and I feel like you should be if you are an angler and I think there's just a lack of awareness and knowledge of this type of stuff and you know hopefully this project will overcome that and more people will start to take care of these fish. 

Now let’s go fishing. We’ll bring the release gear.

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