New Gulf Reef Fish Gear Requirements Coming Soon

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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reminds anglers that new rules go into effect June 1 requiring all people fishing from a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida for any reef fish species to carry and use circle hooks, dehooking devices and venting tools.

These new rules are intended to help more Gulf reef fish survive if they must be released when they are not legal to harvest.  Many reef fish species in the Gulf, especially red snapper and gag grouper, need protection, and anglers can help maintain and rebuild reef fish stocks by properly handling and releasing fish.

The new rules require all persons harvesting any species of reef fish from a vessel in Gulf waters to possess and use non-stainless steel circle hooks when fishing with natural baits.  Gulf anglers also must carry and use a dehooking device and a venting tool when needed to release reef fish from a vessel.  Reef fish species include all snappers, groupers, sea bass, amberjacks, gray triggerfish, hogfish, red porgy and golden tilefish.

A circle hook is fishing hook made so that the point is turned perpendicular to the shank to form a circular or oval shape.  If you’re fishing for reef fish from a vessel in Gulf state waters (from shore out to nine nautical miles), you must use a non-offset circle hook.  Research has found that circle hooks are more likely to hook fish in the mouth, instead of the esophagus or stomach, which reduces harm to the fish.

A dehooking device is an instrument that allows the hook to be secured and the barb shielded without re-engaging when the hook is removed from a Gulf reef fish.  It must be blunt, have rounded edges and be of a size appropriate to secure the range of hook sizes and styles used for Gulf reef fish.

Dehooking devices come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Use one that works best for the fish you are releasing.  If a fish swallows the hook or the fish is too big to release from a boat, it may be better to cut the line as close as possible to the hook instead of trying to remove it.

Reef fish that come from depths of 50 feet or more may undergo expansion of the gasses in the swim bladder as they are brought to the surface.  Signs of this condition are protrusion of the stomach from its mouth, bulging eyes and a bloated belly.  Proper use of a venting tool will help the fish survive by allowing it to safely return to the bottom.

A venting tool is a sharpened, hollow instrument, such as a hypodermic syringe with the plunger removed or a 16-gauge needle fixed to a hollow wooden dowel.  Larger gauge needles may be harmful to the fish, and a tool, such as a knife or ice-pick, is not allowed to vent Gulf reef fish.

You can deflate a bloated Gulf reef fish by inserting the needle of a venting tool into the body cavity at a 45-degree angle under a scale in an area one to two inches behind the base of the pectoral fin.  Insert the needle just deep enough to release the trapped gas and so the fish can be returned to the water with minimal damage.

If the stomach is protruding from the mouth, don’t puncture it or try to put it back into the mouth.  It will return to its normal position following the release of a properly vented fish.

More information about the new Gulf reef fish gear rules, including frequently asked questions about the new rules, fish handling and release tips, and FWC’s new catch and release brochure is available online at