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October 20, 2011

The SeaQualizer

An innovative new device promises improved deep water releases

The anticipation built as we closed in on a bottom spot some 84 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico off Sarasota, Florida. It wasn’t just the flutter-jigging action we hoped to find that fueled our excitement, but the opportunity to test a brand-new release device for bottomfish, one which could render venting obsolete. Little did I know just how easy and effective this device would prove on the red snapper and undersize red grouper we were about to catch.

Releasing undersize, unwanted or closed-season bottomfish is a daunting task, and for good reason. When benthic species such as groupers, snappers, sea bass and tilefish are brought up from depths of 50 feet and more, their swim bladders expand due to the reduction of pressure, which compresses internal gasses, as the fish ascend in the water column. Expanding gasses enlarge swim bladders and can in extreme cases force them to rupture. Damage from pressure change is known as barotrauma and results in fish that are bloated, primarily around the pectoral fins. Their stomachs may protrude from their mouths, and intestines from their anuses. So unless a released fish is properly vented — that is, has its swim bladder punctured with a needle — it won’t be able to return to its lair. It will die or become forage for a larger predator.

With venting, a hollow needle is inserted into the pectoral region of a bloated fish to penetrate the swim bladder and release the gasses, which allows the fish to swim back to the bottom. While venting has proven to be successful, it is not without controversy. Many people, including some from the scientific community, think venting actually harms fish and isn’t as effective as we’d like to think in preserving a fish’s life. Of course, there’s the other side, which says that without venting, fish have zero chance of survival. Many think that if venting is done properly and no internal organs are punctured, fish survive just fine and the slight puncture wound from the needle or venting tool heals.

The SeaQualizer Revolution
The device I tried off Sarasota is the SeaQualizer, a tool for safely and efficiently releasing bottomfish back to their environment. It was developed as a team effort by Jeffrey Liederman, big-game angler and proprietor of Capt. Harry’s Fishing Supply, in Miami; Patrick Brown, a student working on his master’s degree in marine affairs and policy at the University of Miami; and Ryan Brown, a Florida International University graduate with a degree in civil engineering.

The trio felt the regulatory environment was ripe for an easier, quicker, safer and more effective way to release fish compared to venting. In addition to delivering a higher survival rate among released bottomfish, the men hope to show the governmental agencies that regulate recreational fishing that extreme rules and closures are not necessary to protect particular species. For example, consider zones entirely closed to fishing to protect a single species. Provided this device ensures the safe release of protected species caught incidentally, it’s feasible that such a zone could remain open to fishing for other species. This tool could have a major impact on recreational angling regulations.

How It Works
The SeaQualizer works by recompressing fish. That is, it takes a fish back down through the water column, where the increasing pressure on the swim bladder compresses the internal gasses so the fish can swim about as it did prior to being captured. It should be noted that recompression is already used in many regions to successfully release bottomfish, with techniques that involve sending fish down in weighted baskets or to the bottom on weights. Yet the SeaQualizer offers additional advantages: ease of operation and the precision of freeing a fish at one of three preset depths. It is not necessary to lower a fish clear to the bottom before it is released.

The SeaQualizer has a locking grip that fastens to a fish’s jaw much like a scale or release device. It also contains an internal pressure chamber and a three-setting adjustment knob at its opposite end. This adjustment controls the pressure at which the jaws open to release the fish. It can be set to open at 50, 100 or 150 feet.