Sawfish Is First Sea Fish on U.S. Endangered List

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Smalltooth sawfish have an extreme way of using their habitat. Young sawfish are rarely found in more than 6 inches (15 centimeters) of water; they use this shallow sanctuary to avoid predators like lemon sharks and bull sharks. Adult sawfish, with no natural predators, head farther out into the ocean.

Sawfish in Trouble

Like other rays and sharks, sawfish grow slowly, mature late, and have only a few young. As a result, they can't boost their populations quickly as many fast-growing fish can. Young smalltooth sawfish, staying close to shore, are sensitive to coastal development and diminishing habitat.

While sawfish haven't been fished commercially, they can get lured by lines set for other fish. Trophy hunters may seek out sawfish to collect the impressive saw. The saws, which can be more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) long, can also snare sawfish in nets.

"A lot of people think human actions can't deplete fish population," said Fordham "This is a really disturbing example of how human activities can threaten marine fish." Even with the new listing, sawfish populations might take a century to rebuild, she said.

New rules mean stiffer penalties for those who harm sawfish; new coastal development and fishing practices will also have to be monitored to ensure sawfish safety. In addition, NOAA will be reviewing the sawfish's critical habitat, a process which could help shelter other species if areas need to be set aside for sawfish protection.

At Mote Marine Laboratory, Simpfendorfer and his crew will continue to track the sawfish, and hope to have help from the public to expand their understanding of the sawfish's status.

"If people catch or see them we'd love to hear about it," he said.

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