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The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) is one of five sawfish species living in tropical and subtropical rivers, lakes, and coastal areas worldwide. They are a fish characterized by long life, slow growth, late maturity, and low fecundity, making them extremely vulnerable to any changes that may reduce their population.

Sawtooth fishermanIn addition, the introduction of humans and their gear into sawfish habitats has created a new problem: sawfish rostra (saws) can easily become entangled in nets and fishing gear, making them vulnerable targets for overfishing. As humans expand into sawfish territory, leading to habitat destruction and population decline, sawfish are forced out of their previously large range and into smaller and smaller pockets of territory. Historically, smalltooth sawfish migrated along the east coast as far north as North Carolina.

Historically, largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) inhabited Gulf of Mexico waters from Florida to Texas. At this time the largetooth sawfish is thought to be functionally extinct from Florida, with most sightings taking place in Texas waters and recent captures occurring in Central and South America.

Sawfish range over timeThe decline in sawfish populations worldwide has prompted the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) to list all sawfish species as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List. Sawfish are also the only elasmobranch included in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which prohibits any commercial trade in those species. Based on the contraction in range and anecdotal data, the current US population is likely to be at a level of less than 5% of its size at the time of European settlement. This severe decline in population led to two petitions: the Ocean Conservancy’s 1999 petition to have smalltooth sawfish listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) decision to grant that stus on April 1, 2003 (68 FR 15674). Smalltooth sawfish are the first marine fish to receive protection under the ESA.

Smalltooth sawfish are currently limited to waters off the Florida coast to the southwest, and it is illegal to catch, possess, or injure a sawfish. However, fishermen catch them incidentally while fishing for other species, leading the NMFS to develop guidelines for the safe handle and release of accidentally caught sawfish. These new levels of protection will hopefully help the sawfish recover to its previous levels of abundance within United States waters. Though the initial review taken after the sawfish were elevated to “endangered” status suggests that the population has stabilized, it will still take many generations for it to rebuild and meet the goals set by the Sawfish Implementation Team. Sawfish are still at risk due to a depressed population size, continued restricted range, and the continuing threat of habitat degradation and incidental capture.

How you can get involved?

Report encounters. With populations in decline, all information about this species is invaluable. You can greatly help conservation efforts by reporting any sawfish encounter and spreading the word that encounters should be reported.

Distribute flyers. Our flyer can also be used as a tri-fold brochure, allowing it to be posted in windows and boards as well as brochure supports. Download our flyer and post it any place you think it can be read by people visiting potential sawfish habitat.

– Increase public awareness. The more people that know about the importance of reporting sawfish encounters, the better for the smalltooth sawfish. We need to increase public awareness to obtain the most timely and accurate information.

Thank you for helping us assist in the recovery of the U.S. smalltooth sawfish population by reporting your sawfish sightings!

Answers compiled by Jason Seitz, revised by Lindsay French and George Burgess 2017