Endangered sawfish focus of national collection and recovery efforts
Distinguished by a long rostrum or âsawâ that makes it a popular curio item and gives it its name, the sawfish has become a historical and cultural icon that is rapidly disappearing, said George Burgess, a UF ichthyologist and curator of both the International Shark Attack File and the newly expanded National Sawfish Encounter Database.
âPostcards from the turn of the 20th century often depicted this so-called monster that inhabited Florida waters, and if one goes back and looks at newspaper accounts from places outside Florida, every time a sawfish was caught it made the papers,â he said. âToday, itâs difficult to find a bar in South Florida that doesnât have a sawfish âsawâ hanging on the wall.â
An important part of Floridaâs fauna, the sawfish once swam in bays, lagoons and rivers extending from New York to the Rio Grande, Burgess said. Today, its American range has shrunk to Florida and its declining numbers have made it the first species of marine fish to be placed on the list of federally endangered species, he said.
Burgess and a team of scientists at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus plan to use information from the sawfish database to further enhance a management plan developed to help speed the speciesâ recovery.
The National Sawfish Encounter Database is a compendium of all known historical and current records of sawfish in the United States, Burgess said. Databases formerly housed with the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and two private sawfish enthusiasts are being combined with existing Florida Museum of Natural History records, he said.
Data from the collections will reveal the known distribution of sawfish throughout the United States, he said. Burgess plans to add to it new research results as he and his team monitor the abundance of sawfish and use tags to track their movements within the Indian River Lagoon and Banana River along Floridaâs east coast.
This area is critical to the recovery of the once widespread species, Burgess said. Historically, the region was full of sawfish, but the numbers drastically declined as development encroached on the creatureâs coastal habitat and its encounters with humans rose, he said.
âSawfish are disappearing all over the world for basically the same reason, which is that their big saws snag very easily in fishing nets,â he said. âThey have become despised as net wreckers because obviously a fisherman doesnât like getting one in his net. So over the years most sawfish that were captured were killed.â
Even those sawfish lucky enough to be tossed back into the water were often released without their saws, as people came to value these body parts as curio items, Burgess said.
Although the sawfishâs body resembles a shark, the sawfish belongs to a class of fish called rays. Its elongated blade-like snout is used to stun and kill prey.
âSawfish get lots of oohâs and aahâs because humans tend to gravitate to the more charismatic megafauna, as it is characterized,â he said. âWe place more values on whales than their kin the field mice or the brown-eyed seal more than we do some wood rat.â
Part of the sawfishâs appeal may also be its increasing rarity, said Burgess, who estimates there are only a few thousand sawfish left in Florida.
It takes longer for the sawfish population to recover than other species because of its unusually slow growth, late onset of sexual maturity and low reproductive potential, Burgess said. Although the sawfish has a long life span of 30 years or more, it is a live-bearer. As such, it has a prolonged gestation period and produces very few young, he said.
Anyone who sees a sawfish is asked to contact Burgessâs team at 352-392-2360 or firstname.lastname@example.org so they can record the sightingâs location. Mapping the sawfishâs distribution is important in fine-tuning a management plan developed to protect the endangered species, he said.
More information about how to file a sawfish sighting report and what kind of details to include can be obtained from the museumâs Web site at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/sawfish/.