GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The University of Florida shark expert George Burgess is slated to speak at an international conference Monday about research that allowed the largetooth sawfish to be named a U.S. endangered species last week.
Burgess and other UF scientists conducted the documentary research allowing the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the largetooth sawfish as endangered July 12. He is scheduled as a keynote speaker to discuss sawfish populations during the 2011 International Symposium on Sharks in Dakar, Senegal, Monday through Wednesday.
“It’s a fairly desperate situation,” said Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “Anything that swims is eligible to be eaten – you have poor countries reaping their resources because they have no choice.”
Biologists from countries including France, Portugal and the U.S. have participated in workshops in West Africa since 2004 with the objective of educating African biologists about shark conservation strategies. This year’s meeting will include biodiversity reports from participating West African nations.
Burgess’ seminar will focus on identifying sawfish populations, which have dwindled to near-extinction in the last 100 years due to habitat loss and over-fishing. The smalltooth sawfish was the first marine fish listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2003.
“The sawfishes are the two most endangered of the elasmobranchs – the sharks, skates and rays – and the irony is, they are so large, yet they have disappeared under our noses,” Burgess said. “We hope to bring awareness to our colleagues on the eastern side of the Atlantic, where there is still a remnant population.”
Participants include biologists from Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania Senegal and Sierra Leone. Burgess said he hopes the conference will help international researchers better understand the resources and deficiencies of their fisheries. Funded mainly by Fondation Internationale pour le Banc d’Arguin, the biologists will also participate in workshops about identifying species in their areas and utilizing current fisheries technologies.
Burgess’ seminar on sawfish conservation, “We Hardly Knew Ye: The Decline of Atlantic Sawfishes,” will include the work of the Sawfish Implementation Team, a collaborative group of federal and other specialists to promote the recovery of the fish. The sawfish can grow to 25 feet, and its saw-like rostrum is easily caught in fishermen’s nets.
“Hopefully this presentation will bring the plight of sawfishes to the forefront of regional biologists and raise some awareness,” Burgess said. “Maybe they can do something to save the few left in their area.”
For many native societies worldwide, sawfish are culturally important and “considered symbols of strength, spirituality, and admiration,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In Senegal, the sawfish symbol is printed on paper money.
“There’s more sawfish on monetary bills than there are in the water right now,” Burgess said.
Mika Diop, a West African fisheries biologist who helped initiate the workshops in 2004, said this conference aims to highlight the achievements of the Sub-Regional Plan of Action for the conservation and sustainable management of shark populations in West Africa. “Another goal is to encourage reflection on the next steps emanating from this project,” he said.
Original workshop collaborators also include Burgess, Bernard Séret of the France Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and Rui Coelho of Universidade do Algarve in Portugal. While researchers aim to help residents manage fish resources, they also understand fish are a primary food source for West African populations.
“I can’t in good faith tell these folks, ‘Don’t catch any sharks,’ if the sharks are the only thing they can very well eat,” Burgess said. “Unfortunately, the situation there is well beyond what biologists can do.”
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