by Tonya Wiley, Havenworth Coastal Conservation
Their odd appearance and awesome size made them a prized catch for recreational fishermen. Their unique elongated, blade-like snouts, studded with teeth on both sides, were often kept as trophies. Net fishermen on the other hand considered them a nuisance because of the damage they would cause to their gear.
Two species of sawfish were once found in the US: the largetooth sawfish, Pristis pristis, and the smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata. The largetooth sawfish was found throughout the Gulf of Mexico but was more common in western Gulf waters of Texas and Mexico. The smalltooth sawfish ranged from Texas to New York and was most plentiful in the eastern Gulf waters of Florida. Both sawfish species were considered “abundant” and “common” in the early 1900’s. Numerous postcards, photographs, and newspaper articles from that era bear the scene of fishermen hauling in countless sawfish to boats, docks, and beaches across the country.
Photo 1: The Florida state record was caught by William Bloyd in Florida Bay in 1961, a 648 pound smalltooth sawfish measuring 15 feet 4 inches.
Unfortunately the largetooth sawfish has not been seen in the United States since the last confirmed record in 1943. The smalltooth sawfish has fared better and still remains in US waters, though at greatly reduced numbers and geographic range. Today the smalltooth sawfish is found predominately in southwest Florida, notably including Everglades National Park (ENP). The vast expanse of natural habitat within ENP, and limited fishing pressure, likely served as a refuge for sawfish as the population was under constant pressure.
What happened to these grand fish? What caused them to vanish from much of our coastal waters? The decline was due to a combination of three primary factors: (1) overfishing, (2) low reproductive potential, and (3) habitat loss.
Photo 2: The Texas state record was caught by Gus Pangarakis off the Galveston north jetty in 1939, a 736 pound largetooth sawfish measuring 14 feet 7 inches.
Fishing mortality contributed significantly to the decline of sawfish in the US. Many sawfish caught recreationally were landed and displayed for photographs. Others were killed as anglers removed their saws for trophies. Commercial fishermen killed sawfish to save their gear, not wanting to cut their valuable nets to remove captured sawfish. And sawfish were over-exploited for a variety of other reasons. Their meat was used for food, their skin for leather, and their liver oil used in lamps and as a source of vitamin A. Their fins are valued for shark fin soup, their rostral teeth used as artificial spurs in cock-fighting, their cartilage ground-up for traditional medicines, and their saws sold as curios and ceremonial weapons.
The reproductive strategy of sawfish doesn’t help them withstand these threats. Sawfish bear live young, take many years to reach sexual maturity, and produce very few offspring per reproductive cycle. This doesn’t allow sawfish to replenish the population very quickly. This was especially problematic historically as they were being removed far more quickly than they were able to reproduce. And it’s why now it is crucial to keep fishing mortality low in order to recover this endangered species.
Born at about 2 feet in length, juvenile sawfish rely on very shallow, coastal and estuarine waters close to shore for safety from predators, such as sharks, during the first years of their life. However, these shallow coastal waters are the same areas that have been converted to waterfront development. Now much of the natural shoreline vegetation has been developed into seawalls, beaches, marinas, roads, canals, and docks. Therefore the natural vegetation and shallow habitats previously used by sawfish as important protective nursery areas have been greatly reduced in quantity and all but eliminated in some areas.
Due to the dramatic decline of the sawfish populations, The Ocean Conservancy petitioned National Marine Fisheries Service in 1999 to protect both species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The smalltooth sawfish was classified as Endangered in 2003, making it the first fully marine fish and first elasmobranch (sharks, skates, and rays) protected by the ESA. The largetooth sawfish was listed as Endangered in 2011.
Will sawfish in the United States recover? Unfortunately, the largetooth sawfish is probably locally extinct and gone for good from US waters. The smalltooth sawfish just might make a comeback; the population is already showing promising signs following protective measures. Information on smalltooth sawfish recovery planning can be found at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/smalltooth-sawfish
One of the best methods of monitoring the population as it recovers is the use of public sawfish encounters. If you catch or see a sawfish take a quick photograph of it, estimate its size, note your location, and share the information with scientists. The details of your sightings or catches help to track recovery progress. You can share your information by calling 1-844-4-SAWFISH (1-844-472-9347) or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about historic catches or the location of any old sawfish saws is also appreciated.
Remember, due to their protected status it is illegal to target, harm, harass, or handle sawfish in any way. While it is technically illegal to catch a sawfish (except with a research permit or in a fishery where incidental take has been authorized) captures do occur while fishing for other species. Any sawfish caught while fishing must be released as quickly as possible. The number one rule to remember when handling and releasing a sawfish is to leave it in the water at all times. Do not lift it out of the water on to your boat or a pier, and do not drag it on shore.