Whether keeping or releasing, handle with care

Supporting the body is important, especially with larger fish.

by Peter Fullarton •

I love my seafood and my fishing. I fish for fun, the challenge, the relaxation, for sport and for food. I hunt the fish for the enjoyment of striving to be as skilled as possible; the entire experience does not finish with the successful landing of the catch. The enjoyment and pleasure of fishing is not only in the successful ‘capture’ of the target species, but to enable a successful release, or to ensure a humane kill and to make the best use of the animal’s death.

In fishing for a feed, it is responsible to respect and treat the catch using best practice methods. In both a humane kill and properly handling the harvested fish to avoid waste and achieve a quality food product. Equally, it is as important when fishing for sport to fish responsibly to minimize any risk to mortality of the target species. By caring for your catch, and unwanted by-catch, you will also project a positive image of recreational fishers and make for a more sustainable future fishery for generations to come.

I have fished recreationally my whole life. I also spent many years as a commercial fisher, including nearly 20 of them catching live fish for the aquarium trade or for live seafood markets. My commercial fishing taught me a lot about how to handle fish to keep them in a top live condition. I have seen fisheries decline, and heard lots of debate about who is responsible, albeit commercial fishers often bear the sole blame. We need to realise the recreational sector really does have a significant impact these days as well. With bigger boats, many rec anglers can fish pretty much most weather conditions and well out to sea. Fancy electronics enable us to find the fish and return again and again to the exact same spot. It was only a generation ago, as many of us still remember, to locate your favourite fishing reef you had to triangulate from visible landmarks. Hardly accurate compared to the GPS standards of today, and only possible very close to the shore.

Some of our fisheries managers have been making some good calls lately, with recreational only areas along our populated Perth coast and other iconic areas such as inside Ningaloo Reef. The protection of breeding stocks of pink snapper have been a real boost to our fishing opportunities, and western rock lobster switching to quota has seen more and bigger crayfish being abundant. Let’s just hope the current government’s near-sighted cash grab thinking to go back to a larger take of lobster is thwarted. What we all must do, however, is the right thing for the future, by not only sticking to the rules, but also acting responsibly and being aware of the consequences of our own actions to our fisheries future viability.

Unwanted species should be returned to the water alive and healthy. It is cruel to leave blowfish gasping their last breaths behind you on the shore or jetty and does nothing to reduce their numbers. It could also lead to the fatal poisoning of pets and portrays our hobby in a bad way.

I notice on social media pages people who kill a bag limit of dhufish or pink snapper and hold them up for a camera get lots of ‘likes’, but, some people, or as I like to call them ‘fish snobs’, can be very quick to attack other fishers who may post pictures of a shark, wrasse or ray or other fish that may be considered to be of a lesser eating quality. Why attack a fellow fisher who chooses to eat something that maybe considered beneath your own judgments? Perhaps it’s ignorance, because some don’t know how to clean, prepare and cook each fish to its ultimate potential, or have never even tried. Put simply, it is not as sustainable if all fishers always target a handful of species every time they go out for a fish and discard everything else. The iconic species like dhufish, red emperor and coral trout are hammered, and this can eventually result in reduced bag limits for all.

So let’s not be a ‘fish snob’. Spread the love and eat some of the lesser-rated species and stand up for those people who get picked on by the fish snobs. Far better if you’re fishing for food to keep a range of species. Small sharks such as whalers or wobbegong, when cared for properly, can create the best fish and chips. The brown spotted cod caught off the South and Mid-West Coast is much maligned, yet the larger males produce magnificent fillets of beautiful meat that shame a pink snapper and rival a coral trout in juicy tasty textured fillets. Sea mullet, so tasty and healthy, cooked in their crispy skin, certainly doesn’t taste of mud as many would suggest. Even species such as samsonfish or stingrays can make fantastic curries, fish cakes and so on, where it would be waste to use a prime fillet on such dishes. 

Some people would be very surprized at just how well some of the fish considered second rate eat when killed, bled and iced immediately on capture.

Avoid directly handling the fish when possible, as seen here removing the hooks without boating the fish.
Baldchin groper are known to suffer severe barotrauma at even shallow depths.
Using circle hooks will reduce the number of gut hooked fish. The shape of the hook is designed to pull out the throat and to catch in the corner of the mouth.
Westag (westag.org.au) data is proving invaluable to better understand impacts of recreational fishing.
You can use a knife or sharpened screwdriver as a tool for ikijime. You can place a knife through the gill opening to bleed a fish without completely cutting through the throat.

There are only two basic rules you need to follow to obtain the optimum eating quality and storage time. The first is to dispatch quickly, humanely and bleed the fish. The second is to chill quickly, maintaining the freshness of your catch and package well to maintain quality and prolong storage time.

Dispatching methods

It is important to kill a fish quickly, as much for the eating quality as for the humane aspects. To kill a finfish quickly and humanely, a simple and easy method is the traditional way most Australians would have grown up with while tailor fishing. It works very well, but curiously it was never often applied to other table fish species. Quite simply, the process is to cut the throat and then pull the head upwards till the spine snaps, quickly killing and bleeding the fish.

Probably the best method to kill a fish is ikijime. Originating in Japan, the method is now widely used worldwide. Put simply, it is putting a spike into the brain cavity of the fish and wiggling it around to destroy the brain. The fish will give a quick shiver and go limp when done well. Each species has brain the brain in a slightly different position, but as a basic rule if you start above and behind the eye on one side of the fishes’ head and stab towards the eye on the other side, you should be close to the spot. If you are new to ikijime, it is well worth looking at the web site www.ikijime.com and downloading their app that gives the image of each species overlaid with an x-ray of the fishes’ brain to assist in finding the exact location.

Another option is use of a pacifier or priest to give the fish several sharp blows to the top of its head just behind the eyes. This method is very useful to use before bringing a dangerous fish like a mackerel or shark on board a boat. You can buy or make a small baseball like bat or club, even a wooden rolling pin can easily be modified by cutting one handle off. Once a shark is on board, it is best to also stab the shark with the knife blade side on from on top at the base of the head to sever the back bone from the head, then turn the blade and stab down from on top just behind the eyes to pierce the brain.


Once killed, the next step is to immediately bleed the fish. Most people cut completely through the throat. All you really need to do is slide a knife through the gill opening angling forwards towards where the front of the gills are with a little downward pressure. This will cut the artery leading from the heart (ventral aorta). One advantage of this method is your fish will still look good for some later photographs. For sharks, remove the tail, which will sever the caudal artery to bleed it out quickly. Fish are best left to bleed for few minutes in water. The draining of the blood from the fish’s body will help increase the eating quality and storage life on all species.

Molluscs and crustaceans

Squid and octopus can both also be killed by ikijime, but squid are far easier than octopus. The method is to use a narrow blade at a 45° angle either side of the head, stabbing inwards to the mantle and then a third stab down the centre. There are plenty of videos online to check out before attempting the process. If you are not confidant and competent handling octopus, simply remove the head just below the eyes. Octopus can also be numbed in ice slurry.

Lobster and crabs are best dealt with in an ice slurry. It puts them to sleep at the same time as chilling the flesh for best consumption. Lobster can be left in a live tank until you get back to shore. Crabs in a live tank, tub or bucket will attack each other, tearing one another apart with their strong claws. Add the crabs to an ice slurry, and they just give a quick shiver as they hit the slurry and are gone in seconds, and you will have perfect crabs at the end of the day. Australian research has shown there is no reduction of eating quality of crustaceans after 18 hours in such a slurry.


Saltwater ice slurries are the most effective way to quickly chill down a fishes’ temperature. Make up the slurry with two parts crushed or cubed ice to one part sea water in an ice box, adding more ice as necessary through the day. This will chill the fish to around 0°C.

It always surprises me how many people still fish without any ice to keep their catch fresh while out in the boat, on the beach or jetty. Once you have caught your catch the worst thing you can do is to leave your fish suffocating in a bucket of hot water in the sun. Fish chilled to 0°C is good for many days. In a warm bucket of water time is measured in hours and eating quality will be reducing by the minute. If you want to keep the fish in a bucket, change the water regularly and keep it in the shade so the fish stay alive and fresh. 

If you are not going to be eating all your catch fresh, you can freeze any extra in vacuum seal bags for maximum quality as soon as practicable. It is generally said not to freeze fish for longer than three months, although quality will vary between species. I find tailor, pink snapper and mulloway don’t eat as well after 8-12 weeks, others like dhufish are fine for longer than three months.

Using the rest

To make use of the whole fish, there are recipes for stocks and soups for your fish heads. Frames from large fish can be thrown on a barby plate and the meat picked off the bone.

Leftovers can also be used to improve your fishing results. Fish heads can be frozen for future use as crab or cray bait. Frames and heads from smaller bread and butter species I chop with a meat cleaver to small chunks and mix with pollard, chook pellets and fish oil. This is a great berley that will bring in everything from offshore snapper, tuna and sharks, to beach mulloway, tailor and bream.

Larger heads and frames can be cooked down in a big pot, just add a little water at the start. Don’t do it inside the kitchen, the smell won’t be welcome! Cook and stir till the flesh falls off the bones, turn off the heat and add some fish oil and a little aniseed to give it that extra boost, before freezing into suitable size containers. Once cooled, the gelatinous mix works very well as a strong slow release berley suspended in a berley bag on a boat. Adding pollard before freezing will make it a thicker mix that can last for hours when left in the wash on the beach. You can put the un-cooked frames and heads through a mulcher and freeze the mix as berley logs. These are effective, but they tend to last only as long as they stay frozen before the currents fully dispersed them, so you need a few and they need to be kept frozen until used to last a fishing session.

Handling for release

Finfish need to be handled carefully if they are to be released to prevent removing the protective slime coating. Once the slime coating has been removed the fish is susceptible to bacterial, fungal or disease infection. Landing nets with knotless mesh are very useful for bringing the fish on board a boat and are kind to the fish. Always wet your hands or any towel or rag you are using before handling fish. Preferably put a wet towel down rather than place a fish on a hot dry boat deck or other surface. With larger fish it is always best to remove the hooks with pliers without even removing the fish from the water when possible.

We all love to get some pictures of a personal best or trophy-sized fish. Bragging rights do need to be observed. While handling these fish for the photo, support the fish under the body when lifting, don’t just hang it by the tail or head, and try to swim the fish between photographs. Ideally, get in the water with the fish, lifting it out just for the photos.

If the fish is totally exhausted after a fight, you will need to swim it through the water to oxygenate the gills to be sure it has some kick in it before the release. It is best just to support the fish, so when ready it can swim off under its own power. Sometimes, it may be best to make the call to keep the fish if it is bleeding or doesn’t show some strong signs it can swim.

Gut hooking fish causes a significant number of mortalities. Think about keeping any gut hooked fish if you are planning on taking a feed home. Gut hooking incidences can be halved by using circle hooks instead of ‘J’ hooks. You can buy them in a range of sizes to suit all but the smallest of fish. Also, use hooks of a suitable size for the target species. Large hooks are far less likely to be swallowed by undersize fishes. I use 9/0 hooks while demersal fishing to try eliminate gut hooking undersized fish. If you are releasing fish, flatten the barbs or use barbless hooks and change any trebles on lures to singles. It makes the release easier and reduces damage to the fish.

Many fish will suffer from barotrauma when brought up from depths. Mulloway, breaksea cod, baldchin groper, dhufish and pink snapper will all suffer to varying degrees. It is important to understand what depth each species can be caught and released from. The increase in popularity of jigging artificial lures has started a trend where people do fish for sport on many deepsea species. Also, all the popular TV fishing shows promote catch and release for demersal fish without explaining the consequences to the fishes health, making it seem okay and normal.

Everyone needs to make informed decisions on what fish to keep or release from certain depths and when to stop fishing. Personally, I have a rule on my boat to keep every legal size fish when fishing for demersal species and stop fishing for them once a bag limit is met. I have in the past made exceptions when catching fish in under 10m that are showing no signs of barotrauma. Although, after reading a Fisheries WA paper, probably under the same circumstances, I would pull anchor and move off a school of dhufish. I recommend any serous WA demersal fisher to have a read of this article, which can be found on www.fish.wa.gov.au.

The study did some detailed work to look at depths pink snapper and dhufish were caught from and the hook types used. This was done by capturing and keeping the fish in cages at the depths they were caught from to see what the effects of the barotrauma was. The study also did some critical analysis on results from tagging programmes in WA and looked at the mortalities between ‘J’ and circle hook types. Similar studies confirm similar results in other states of Australia on pink snapper. To summarise some of the results, 21% of dhufish died when caught from 0-14m, where 86% died when caught from 45-60m. The study suggested that 13.2% of the mortalities could be entirely due to hook damage alone with a number of strongly bleeding fish dying in a short time frame. Overall, 51% of the captured dhufish died, though clearly if you are catching them in more than 15m more than half can be expected to die.

Of the pink snapper taken from 5, 15 and 30m depths, only 3.42% of these fish died. Another two sites fish were taken from of 45 and 65m, and 69% of these fish died. The study results indicate a rapid increase in mortalities in fish caught greater than 30m. Sadly, 91% of gut hooked fish died from either depth.

There was also some interesting figures from the tagging program in WA. For dhufish, one in every 13 fish tagged has been re-caught. Pink snapper have returned one in every 12 fish tagged. Breaksea cod appear to suffer a more severe barotrauma visually, and not surprisingly, only returned one in every 32 fish tagged. Baldchin groper suffer severe barotrauma at even shallow depths and 0 tags have ever been returned from caught fish. Although tagging numbers of baldchin may be small compared to the numbers of dhufish that have been tagged and recovered, but there should have been some seen by now if they were surviving.

The overwhelming conclusions of the study was fish released in increasing depth results in significantly more mortalities and depth alone is the main factor in fish survival. A shot line should be used to send the fish back to the depth it came from rather than venting. That is, puncturing the swim bladder with a needle. Using circle hooks will result in less gut hooked fish and a higher survival rate.

Some of the other things we do on my boat is to move off the heavy reef or lumps once a boat limit is reached for dhufish. We drift the flats for pink snapper and baldchin groper where it is far less likely to continue catching more dhu. Mortalities are not limited to the release of size fish, and undersize suffer equally. When we do feel that little rattle on the line that feels like a smaller fish we will wind up the fish very slowly allowing the fish to vent and will pause the retrieve to allow the fish to decompress for several minutes half way up. This does not prevent the barotrauma but will reduce the effects. 

Signs of severe barotrauma are bulging eyes and expelled stomach or intestines that have been displaced by the expanded swim bladder. There is also a lot more going on within the fish you can’t see. Bubbles form in the blood stream and other internal organs and eyes, similar to a diver with the bends. Displaced internal organs can be injured and there can be significant internal bleeding and clotting of blood, so just sending one back down on a shot line out of sight is by no means a cure. The fish can have severe injuries and may die within hours or days later. Next time you land a baldchin, take the time to have a look within the gut cavity when cleaning your catch. Even from 10m they suffer a massive amount of internal organ haemorrhaging and clotting within the gut cavity, probably explaining the total lack of recaptures.

Another issue mainly associated with our northern waters, but it can also be a problem closer to Perth at times, is the shark factor. If the sharks are eating everything you hook it is defintely time to move on. We all have a bag limit for a reason. This is an assessed sustainable take for the species you are targeting. Feeding the sharks 10 for each one landed somewhat cheats the system, not to mention the waste. Sometimes they are just so bad out deep your best to fish some shallow grounds if you can’t find a shark free spot.

So there you have it, a basic guide on fish handling and care. Whether you choose to release or keep your catch, it’s worth remembering the little things you can do to either ensure their survival, or the best eating quality.