A Fish Tale: Sawfish Fact and Fiction Through History

By Carmen Elenberger

Old artists rendition of sawfishFor years sawfish carried a reputation as a formidable denizen of the deep. Their reputation was spread by writers such as Jules Verne, whose famous Captain Nemo instructed his sailors in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea to “leave the unfortunate cetacea alone. They have plenty of natural enemies- cachalots, swordfish, and sawfish- without your troubling them.”

Despite the advice, sawfish neither consume marine mammals nor pose a significant threat to them. Their dangerous nature depends upon perspective and who’s telling the tale. Throughout history, sawfish portrayals have been less than true to the facts, whether the misinformed party is the media, historians, or the fishermen who encounter these ancient fish. Even scientists held a less than complete picture- but now, in 2011, with a decade’s research on the part of the International Sawfish Encounter Database (ISED) the facts are becoming clearer.

The database strives to compile a complete record of every known sawfish encounter, both smalltooth (Pristis pectinata) and largetooth (Pristis perotteti). As of 2011 the collection contained nearly 6,000 archived reports, from historic accounts on microfilm, new articles, and recent eye- witness accounts collected since the project began. With such an expanded picture, scientists can track the growth and range of the sawfish population and shed further light on the real truth about sawfish.

Below are some commonly held misconceptions or popular tales about sawfish illuminated and refuted by scientific research.

Sawfish Myths: