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Act Now

The Weird, Wild and Nearly Extinct Sawfish

By Michael Bear and David McGuire

In the world of shark conservation, considerable focus is placed on the more well-known endangered species such as the Oceanic Whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus) and the Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini). However, little attention is given to lesser-known species such as the Sawfish-arguably the most threatened family of marine fishes in the world.

Sawfish are a type of ray in the family Pristidae, also known as carpenter sharks that have a long, flattened rostrum, or saw extension, lined with sharp transverse teeth. Not to be confused with the deepwater Saw Sharks (family Pristiophoridae), these specialized rays are among the largest fish, with some species reaching lengths of about 7–7.6 m (23–25 ft).

The global populations of all five sawfish species have experienced historic declines greater than 90% due to fisheries overexploitation (directed and bycatch) and habitat loss. Consequently, three species are listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, and two species are listed as Endangered. There is a very real risk that these unique species will be lost without urgent conservation action. 1

Loss of habitat and direct hunting have threatened all sawfishes, and sea surface temperature shifts associated with climate change is adding another threat to these fish. Currently in the news is an account of unusual spinning behavior and deaths in an Unusual Mortality Event, potentially attributed to a neurological pathogen off the coast of Florida. The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) is a species of sawfish found in shallow tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, including the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Reports from elsewhere are now believed to be misidentifications of other species of sawfish. It is a critically endangered species that has disappeared from much of its historical range.2

There have been over a hundred unique reports of affected sawfish and now over 30 confirmed mortalities, reports the sawfish recovery coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.

The ongoing mortality event began in October 2023 along the coast of the Florida Keys, and so far 32 smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) have died. NOAA officials believe that this is an undercount, with sawfish stranding themselves on beaches, and others sinking uncounted.

Sawfish day

Sawfishes are found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. Five species in two genera are currently living in the Atlantic, East Pacific and Indo-Pacific. These rays use their saws for hunting, defense, and communication. They are slow-growing and late-maturing sharks, which makes them vulnerable to overfishing. Sawfishes are also threatened by habitat loss due to coastal development and pollution.3 The IUCN Shark Specialist Group has developed a Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy to help address the threats facing these sharks. The strategy includes recommendations for research, education, and conservation action. The strategy also calls for the development of regional conservation programs to protect sawfish populations. 4

All species of sawfish are listed under Appendix II of CITES, thereby limiting their possession, trade, harvesting and trade internationally. However, the saw is a curio coveted by collectors, and can bring thousands of dollars on the market. Shark Stewards has complied a list of vendors of sawfish rostra, and jaws from other CITES listed species like white sharks for sale on eBAY, and provided the company and US Fish and Wildlife to investigate and identify the provenance and any permitting.

With urgent conservation action, we can help ensure that these amazing creatures do not disappear from our ocean.

For more information, see: Sawfish – A Global Strategy for Conservation

Harrison, L.R. and Dulvy, N.K. (eds). 2014. Sawfish: A Global Strategy for Conservation. IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Shark Specialist Group, Vancouver, Canada.

Sources

1. https://www.iucnssg.org/sawfish-strategy.html

2.  Carlson, J.; Blanco-Parra, M.P.; Bonfil-Sanders, R.; Charles, R.; Charvet, P.; Chevis, M.; Dulvy, N.K.; Espinoza, M.; Faria, V.; Ferretti, F.; Fordham, S.; Giovos, I.; Graham, J.; Grubbs, D.; Pacoureau, N.; Phillips, N.M. (2022). Pristis pectinataIUCN Red List of Threatened Species2022: e.T18175A58298676. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2022-2.RLTS.T18175A58298676.en. Retrieved 20 May 2023.

3. Dulvy; Davidson; Kyne; Simpfendorfer; Harrison; Carlson & Fordham (2014). “Ghosts of the coast: global extinction risk and conservation of sawfishes” (PDF). Aquatic Conserv: Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst26 (1): 134–153. doi:10.1002/aqc.2525

4. Harrison, L.R.; N.K. Dulvy, eds. (2014). Sawfish: A Global Strategy for Conservation (PDF). IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Shark Specialist Group. ISBN 978-0-9561063-3-9.