A True Rarity in the Northern Gulf: Sawfish Need our Help
Two species of sawfish (largetooth and smalltooth) historically inhabited the Gulf of Mexico as part of their range. The largetooth sawfish has a fairly broad range worldwide but is considered extremely rare in the Gulf now (infrequent reports on the Texas coast). The historic range of smalltooth sawfish was more restricted to U.S. waters but at one time extended from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to New York. It is now limited to peninsular Florida on the Atlantic side, the Florida Keys, and up the Gulf coast of Florida into the Panhandle. However, it is estimated that about 50 % of the entire population of the smalltooth sawfish is limited to the Keys and Southwest Florida only, with 90% being contained along the lower one half of the peninsula on either coast. This is truly a species in decline.
If you want to conjure a pretty good image of the smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) in your mind just imagine a shark, crossed with a stingray, crossed with a hedge trimmer and you will have it. Truly, one of the oddest-looking creatures of the animal kingdom, the smalltooth sawfish is one of our unique estuarine and marine species that has experienced dramatic declines throughout its range and was the first marine fish to receive “endangered” status under the Endangered Species Act when it was listed in 2003. There are five to seven species of sawfish worldwide (depending on the taxonomy convention used) and the IUCN has listed them all as “critically endangered.” They are also listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) so any commercial trade in these animals is prohibited, with the exception of extremely limited permission for use in public aquaria.
Biologically, sawfish are considered to be rays. Their gills are on the bottom, rather than on the sides of their head like sharks. Their mouth is also built like a ray’s and they have similar teeth which are adapted more for grinding than slicing. Food is captured by slashing the “toothy” rostrum through schools of baitfish to stun them. It is also thought that sawfish may use their snout for excavation of bottom-dwelling invertebrates.
The species decline has been attributed to habitat degradation of nursery areas in near-shore estuaries, where birthing takes place, as well as overfishing through both intentional and incidental catch by fishermen and in nets. Current law requires accidentally caught sawfish to be carefully released. Scientists are very interested in any sightings of these fish and if you do encounter one it would be valuable information to report. George Burgess, of The Florida Museum of Natural History, is maintaining the National Sawfish Encounter Database (NSED) to gather this vital data to better understand the status of this declining species. If you or anyone you know encounters a sawfish while on the water please call (352) 392-2360 to report it.
If you accidentally hook a sawfish while fishing for other species you should cut the line as close to the hook as possible to release the fish. However, care must be taken as a large sawfish is a powerful animal with a very effective toothy weapon. Please help with conservation efforts by calling the number above with any sightings in our area.
Article by Erik Lovestrand
UF/IFAS/Sea Grant Extension Agent
Wakulla, Franklin and Gulf
Photo: Florida Memory Collection: State Library and Archives of Florida