Hear the International Sawfish Encounter Database‘s George Burgess, renowned marine wildlife artist Guy Harvey and Chris Peterson of Hell’s Bay Boatworks talk about their joint effort to save endangered sawfish and maintain the natural health of shallow water flats.

Harvey describes the rare and charismatic sawfish as “a bit like a cross between a shark, a ray and a billfish all rolled into one animal.”

Jordan Kahn and Sean McNeil created this video under the guidance of Michael Benedict.


Dr. George Burgess: It’s difficult to say exactly what the loss of sawfish in the natural ecosystem would be.

Guy Harvey: When the last refuges for saw sawfish it’s around the coast of Florida. The sawfish is a bit like a cross between a shark, a ray and a billfish, all into one animal.

Burgess: They use the saw on top here to go like this to stun prey.

Chris Peterson: When we first started talking with George Burgess about his special needs they need for a research boat, I knew we had the perfect hull for that. It’s only through knowledge and through science that we can really properly know how to regulate and how these things breed and how we’re going to be able to maintain the natural health of the flats.

Narrator: Hiding beneath the surface of the wild waters of coastal Florida there is a creature so rare it is more like a mythical beast than a symbol of conservation. Now three of the most powerful and iconic voices for marine preservation that holds sway over Florida’s nearly three million registered fishermen are joining forces to give a voice to this nearly forgotten species. It is a collaboration that will improve scientists understanding of the gem clear waters of the saltwater flats that Florida fisherman love. Guy Harvey of the Guy Harvey of ocean foundation and Chris Peterson, President of Hell’s Bay Boatworks, donated a flats skiff to the University of Florida for the important field research being done there to save Sawfish.

Burgess: Both these species are in deep trouble here in the the Atlantic. The small tooth sawfish is officially listed as an endangered species in the US. The large tooth will soon become one as well.

Narrator: Dr. George Burgess is famously known as keeper of the International Shark Attack Files but his role as a scientist, leading researcher, and professor at the University of Florida, covers much more than just reporting on shark bites.

Burgess: This is one of dozens of similar rows of fishes in the Florida Museum of Natural History. We’re one of the largest collections of fishes in North America. We have probably about two and a half million specimens of fishes in here and we probably represent about 8,500 species of fishes from around the world. Each of these jars represents a snapshot in time of animals at the time and place that they were collected, and they are an archive of our natural history which will be with us forever.

Narrator: Studies like the tagging and tracking of sawfish are one of the many ongoing efforts at the Museum and the Florida program for shark research.

Burgess: The National sawfish encounter database which is housed here at the Florida Museum of Natural History is a compendium of documentation of all known sawfish records. We’re tagging adult and sub adult sawfishes to get an idea of their movements in our case one of our biggest things that we needed here was an appropriate boat to work in shallow water areas of the Keys, of the Tortugas, and Florida Bay.

Narrator: If Dr. Burgess sounds like the police officer in the movie Jaw saying, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” his research team is trying to safely handle sawfish that can reach 20 feet length. It’s an adventurous effort and one of the donors to UF study of the imposing animals this Guy Harvey, a man who’s been described as the Indiana Jones of the oceans. He is internationally respected for his Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, which spearheads important projects like the Save Our Gulf campaign, but Harvey’s work is best known through his art, which is popularly worn on t-shirts and millions of the anglers.

Harvey: Getting close in person to a sawfish is not easy, partially because of the very shallow would habitat they inhabit. They are very large animals, they are flattened to conform with in the shallow water environment and they have this incredible extension of the upper jaw that is lined with these large teeth that it uses as an offensive weapon to feed. There’s nothing else like it in the marine ecosystem. They’re very few and far between and they become more and more scarce in the last few years and there’s more reason now to research, do more research work about them to find out how many are left, what they do, how they fill their niche, and more importantly to conserve them.

Peterson: The in shore, the flats, the mangroves, that whole area that whole ecosystem is really the nursery for all the seas. Florida is a very special place. Florida’s unique because we have more coast line than anywhere else in the United States. That’s critically important to me to make sure that that we’re, you know, very good conservation minded because I want to make sure it’s there for my kid. My passion for fishing came from you know my very beginnings. Ever since I can remember I was taking small boats out into the flats and into the back wild areas of Florida. I love the flats. I love to fish. I love watery places. I love investigating all sorts of back little creeks and tidal pools. If fish are there or not, it’s always good to go and explore. You never really know what you’re going to find out on the flat. A day on the flats is always something that is just magical.

Burgess: Any scientists will tell you that each and every organism whether it’s a charismatic one like a sawfish or a pain in the butt life of a salt marsh mosquito has its place. In science nothing is, comes free and to do field work, to be able to do the kinds of things that we need to do to get the answers to the questions we’re asking in regards to endangered species like sawfishes or sharks and rays which are also foci of our research interest it takes it takes resources and our existing boat was ‘over the hill’ shall we say and it was time for a new and better boat. I’m sure the Hell’s Bay guys may cringe a little bit when they hear me say ‘work boat’ because they make sort of the Rolls Royces of flats boats for sport fishing.

Chris Peterson: Hell’s Bay boatworks was created as a fishing tool. They’re quiet. They’re stealthy. We hand make every boat. While the technology that we use comes out of the aerospace industry. We hand lay all of our fiberglass which is somewhat unique in today’s manufacturing processes. When we first started talking with George Burgess about his special needs they need for a research boat, I knew we had the perfect hull for that. They needed a platform that was maybe a little more stable, and could carry more equipment and more people. Being a custom boat maker, we put a very small console in, and they’d need a lot of seating, they need more room to go work around these large fish, these sharks, these sawfish. I mean sawfish are going to be as big as the boat itself. But they need to be able to get into the shallow water areas, which this boat will do.

Harvey: A scientific work boat is what you want, but it has to have the ability to go into these very very shallow water places, so you’ve got to have a small draft, engines that tilt up and if you do get stuck you get off easily. The Hell’s Bays is the perfect ride for that kind of work.

Burgess: Right now we’ve got the prettiest boat in the flats not only is it a beautiful boat and a very functional one but of course it bears the wonderful artwork of Guy Harvey. Nobody will confuse this with anybody else.

Peterson: Being able to work with the University of Florida the shark research program was a real natural fit for us. I went to the University of Florida, I had three children attend the University of Florida. We bleed orange and blue. This was a way to give back, it speaks to what our passion is after we leave Gainesville, after game day. It’s really kind of way the Gator Nation works.

Learn more about International Sawfish Encounter Database at the Florida Museum.

Learn more about sawfish at the Florida Museum.

Explore Research at the University of Florida

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