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What is the Role of NOAA Fisheries in Conserving and Recovering Smalltooth Sawfish?

10/01/2016 3:40 PM | Ron Presley (Administrator)

We are often asked, “What is the role of NOAA Fisheries (NOAA) in managing protected species?” The answer is complex as NOAA participates in a variety of management activities. Here, we will take a look at how the agency protects endangered smalltooth sawfish while working towards its recovery.

NOAA listed the smalltooth sawfish as an endangered species in April 2003, after scientists determined that the species was at risk of extinction. The main reasons for the decline of this species were bycatch mortality and habitat loss. The listing triggered several required actions for NOAA under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including designating critical habitat and developing a recovery plan. A recovery plan was published in January 2009, after years of development and input from the public. It was then followed by a final rule to designate critical habitat in September of that same year. The combination of these three documents (listing rule, critical habitat rule, and recovery plan) provides the groundwork for the conservation of this species.

NOAA has a two-pronged approach to conservation under the Act, (1) stop further declines in abundance (protect), and (2) increase abundance to historical numbers (recover). The first objective (protection) is largely conducted under Section 7 of the ESA. This section tells federal agencies to use their authorities to promote conservation and to find out whether any action they authorize, fund, or carry out has the potential to affect protected species. This includes federal activities like issuing in-water construction permits for docks or marinas (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), setting water quality criteria (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and developing management plans for public lands (National Park Service). If any federal action has the potential to affect smalltooth sawfish (or any other ESA-listed species) or its critical habitat, that agency is required to consult with NOAA before any action moves forward. These consultation periods can last from several weeks to several months depending on the complexity of the action. Through this process, NOAA is able to work with federal agencies to minimize and avoid negative effects to protected species. If impacts are unavoidable, the process provides a way for the agency to monitor any critical habitat loss or mortality associated with individual projects.

An example of the Section 7 process can be observed in the waters you might fish around Everglades National Park. In this case, the National Park Service drafted a management plan to care for the park and its resources, including the chickees. Because in-water construction activities associated with building chickees could affect smalltooth sawfish, the National Park Service entered into consultation with NOAA. During the assessment we agreed with the park’s decision that although the actions associated with the management plan could affect smalltooth sawfish, that they were not likely to adversely affect the species. With consultation complete the National Park Service put their management plan into action and can now repair chickees without further NOAA approval.

NOAA is involved in a number of other activities associated with recovering smalltooth sawfish. This started with forming a multi-agency team that developed the recovery plan. The plan has served as a roadmap for sawfish recovery by identifying three main objectives for recovery: (1) minimize injury and mortality from human interaction, (2) protect and/or restore sawfish habitat, and (3) increase abundance.

NOAA and its partners are engaged in ongoing efforts to minimize injury and mortality from human interaction. These efforts include working with the commercial fishing industry and raising awareness in the recreational fishing community. We have started a variety of outreach programs aimed at reducing injury and mortality, including an assortment of outreach products to encourage safe handling, safe release if caught, and reporting of any sawfish catches. The reports of any encounter (capture or sighting) are crucial for NOAA to track the status of the population and its recovery.

To track progress in achieving recovery objectives 2 and 3, NOAA supports and participates in a number of research projects. These projects provide information on habitat needs, population abundance, and the response of sawfish to recovery actions. Some research projects are conducted by NOAA personnel while others are led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or universities. All agencies conducting research on sawfish must go through a rigorous application process to secure the necessary permits to sample and handle a protected species. The information collected from these projects is used in monitoring the status of the population as well as making management and recovery decisions.

Now that we’ve presented a brief overview of how NOAA protects smalltooth sawfish, you might find yourself asking “how can I become involved?” First, if you capture a sawfish, leave it in the water and release it as quickly as possible. To safely release sawfish we encourage fishermen to cut the line as close to the hook as possible. This reduces the possibility of injury to both themselves and the animal. Before release, estimate the length of the sawfish and look for tags on the dorsal fins. Then, we ask fishermen to report their encounters (1-941-255-7403 or sawfish@myfwc.com)—both sightings and incidental captures. We use your reports to help track recovery progress.

Some fishermen have expressed concern that reporting encounters will result in the closure of favorite fishing locations. NOAA has already listed the species and designated critical habitat and neither of these actions has resulted in any closed fishing areas for recreational anglers. Your encounter reports will only be used to track recovery and steer research efforts, which will ultimately benefit the species and the areas in which you fish. We are confident that NOAA and recreational anglers can work together to recover smalltooth sawfish so future generations can experience the thrill of encountering such a unique animal.

For further information about the biology of sawfish, safe release guidance, and reporting please see our website at http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/ sawfish.

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