At the Florida Program for Shark Research, our efforts focus primarily on the study and conservation of Florida’s current remaining sawfish species, the smalltooth sawfish. The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) is one of five sawfish species living in tropical and subtropical rivers, lakes, and coastal areas worldwide.
Sawfish 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. In 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 as far north as New York, with migrations along the east coast into North Carolina.
Historically, largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) were also present in the Florida Keys, and 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.
The decline in sawfish populations worldwide has prompted the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to list all sawfish species as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List, with the smalltooth sawfish, largetooth sawfish, and green sawfish being listed as “Critically Endangered”. Sawfish were also the first 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 stablized, 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 degredation and incidental capture.
How you can get involved in the recovery of the U.S. smalltooth sawfish population:
- 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 to the Florida Program for Shark Research using our Sawfish Encounter Reporting Information Sheet.
- Distribute Fliers. Our flier 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 flier and post it any place you think it can be read by people visiting potential sawfish habitat. Appropriate places may include bait shops, dive shops, marinas, and bars and restaurants in coastal areas.
- 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. Any assistance distributing information on sawfish is greatly appreciated and will contribute to ongoing sawfish conservation efforts.
Thank you for helping us assist in the recovery of the U.S. smalltooth sawfish population by reporting your sawfish sightings and captures!
U.S. Sawfish Collaborators
National Marine Fisheries Service
SEFSC, Panama City Laboratory
3500 Delwood Beach Rd.
Panama City, FL 32408
Phone: 850-234-6541 ext 221
Sonja V. Fordham
Shark Advocates International
c/o The Ocean Foundation
1320 19th Street, NW, Fifth Floor
Washington, DC 20036
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
Charlotte Harbor Field Laboratory
585 Prineville Street
Port Charlotte, FL 33954
R. Dean Grubbs
Florida State University
Coastal and Marine Laboratory
3618 Hwy 98
St. Teresa, FL 32358
Haven Worth Consulting
2925 Terra Ceia Bay Blvd #2502
Palmetto, Florida 34221
Adam Brame (Sawfish Recovery Coordinator)
National Marine Fisheries Service
Southeast Regional Office
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
National Park Service
Florida Bay Interagency Science Center
98630 Overseas Highway
Key Largo, FL 33037
US Army Corps of Engineers
Environmental Branch, Planning Division
701 San Marco Blvd
Jacksonville, FL 32232