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

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
June 4, 2003
A strange-looking fish has snapped up a spot on the endangered species
list. The smalltooth sawfish is the first U.S. marine fish to receive
federal protection as an endangered species.

"They're a species that pretty much disappeared without anyone noticing," said Colin Simpfendorfer, senior scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. Simpfendorfer believes the sawfish population has shrunk to less than 5 percent of its level at the time the first Europeans arrived in the New World.

"In one regard, it's a sad thing that this species has fallen so low," said Georgia Cranmore, assistant regional administrator for protected species at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service southeast region. On the other hand, said Cranmore, the new listing will hopefully start a turnaround for the species. Sawfish are considered one of the most endangered fish species in the world. All seven species of sawfish are listed on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Florida state law has protected the sawfish since 1992.

Historically, the smalltooth sawfish ranged the western Atlantic Ocean from Long Island to Brazil. Now, the U.S. population of smalltooth sawfish swims mainly off Florida's coast. "With sawfish, we don't know very much about its population, but we do know that it had a huge decrease in its range," said David O'Brien, a NOAA Fisheries endangered species biologist.

In 1999, the conservation group The Ocean Conservancy, then known as the Center for Marine Conservation, petitioned for the listing of largetooth and smalltooth sawfish.

In reviewing the sawfish's status, NOAA officials determined not to move forward with listing on largetooth sawfish because the species is no longer recorded in U.S. waters. The smalltooth sawfish was placed on the endangered species list on May 1.

International Fish of Mystery

Many people might not even have known the sawfish was in trouble, let alone existed. Matthew McDavitt, an anthropologist who studies the importance of animals in culture, said that he's watched people call the sawfish everything from a swordfish to a hammerhead shark.

Sawfish, like their close relatives sharks and rays, are too often overlooked when it comes to research and conservation, said Sonja Fordham, program manager and shark specialist with the Washington, D.C.-based The Ocean Conservancy. "They don't get a lot of respect," she said.

The sawfish gets its name from its long, flat snout rimmed with dozens of teeth. Sawfish, which can reach up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) in length, use this saw to find and kill prey. Some sawfish species can swim in freshwater spots like rivers, while others, like the smalltooth, stick to saltier waters.

While Western cultures may not be so familiar with this fish, other people have known about sawfish for a long time. Sawfish appeared in art and ritual in the Aztec culture. The Aztec sword, coated in obsidian, mimicked the design of the sawfish bill. Other cultures in Oceania and Australia incorporated sawfish in their own tribal myths.

The team at Mote Marine Laboratory is the first in the United States to study sawfish, members of the elasmobranch family that also includes sharks and rays. Simpfendorfer and his colleagues track sawfish with acoustic and satellite tags to learn about their habitat and behavior.

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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