2017-04-20 / Top News

Saving the imperiled SAWFISH

Florida Weekly Correspondent

WHEN YOU HEAR THE WORD “FISH,” YOU expect a creature that looks like a snook or a grouper or any one of a gazillion species here in Southwest Florida. But sawfish … well, they look like something else entirely. They resemble a shark (and are, actually, in the same family as sharks, skates and rays) — with one major difference. Sawfish have a rostrum, a nose extension up to one-quarter of the creature’s length, with a menacing set of tooth-like protrusions on each side. It’s more than menacing — it’s a real threat. The bigger the saw, the easier it is to locate, stun and kill its prey. It’s no wonder native peoples attributed mystical and religious powers to sawfish — or that sawfish have also been used as symbols of warfare. The U.S. Navy’s WWII submarine fleet included the USS Sawfish. And the Germans used the emblem of a laughing sawfish on 11 of its own U-boats.

It’s easy to see why George Burgess describes the sawfish as looking like “a flattened shark.” 
COURTESY PHOTOS It’s easy to see why George Burgess describes the sawfish as looking like “a flattened shark.” COURTESY PHOTOS Despite their terrifying appearance, they are on the verge of extinction, and desperately in need of protection.

According to National Geographic: “Sawfish are considered one of the most endangered fish species in the world. All seven species of sawfish are listed on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species.”

It’s not often the power to save a species rests in our hands. But George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, says Southwest Florida residents have the potential to do just that.

The swordsmen of the ocean

In Florida, the species in question is the smalltooth sawfish. And while we’re at it, we can aid the survival of the largetooth sawfish as well.

Researchers obtain data from a smalltooth sawfish. Researchers obtain data from a smalltooth sawfish. Dr. Nicole Phillips grew up with a love of rays and sharks and a fascination with genetics. Today she combines both with her genetic research of the endangered sawfish.

Her study recently brought Dr. Phillips and graduate student Annmarie Fearing to Charlotte Harbor. The pair shared their work in a talk sponsored by the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center.

Mr. Burgess, Dr. Phillips and Ms. Fearing are sawfish advocates of the highest order. In addition to his role with the Florida Program for Shark Research, Mr. Burgess is a member of the Sawfish Recovery Implementation Team. Dr. Phillips and Ms. Fearing conduct sawfish research under the auspices of the University of Southern Mississippi. Ms. Fearing previously worked as Mr. Burgess’ research assistant.

A look at their work reveals how we can help prevent the extinction of these marine animals, which are as charismatic as they are bizarre in appearance.

Annmarie Fearing and George Burgess with a sawfish rostrum. Annmarie Fearing and George Burgess with a sawfish rostrum. Mr. Burgess describes a sawfish as looking like a “flattened shark.” Its rostrum is impressive enough, but its size makes its appearance even more dramatic. An adult can grow as long as 23 feet, with one-quarter of its length attributable to its “saw.” The bigger the saw, the easier it is to locate, stun and kill its prey.

Despite its relation to the shark, sawfish pose no danger to humans — unless they’re provoked. If that happens, watch out.

Bob Waugh, reporting for the (UK) Daily Mail on a 2012 Australian study of captive wild sawfish, said this: “Sawfish are vicious predators which use their saws to skewer and maim their prey — hitting victims hard enough to cut them in half. Previously it was thought 20-foot fish were placid creatures which used their ‘saws’ more like rakes, to sift through sand in search of food. But the creatures aren’t sluggish bottom-dwellers: they’re merciless hunters which ‘slice’ through the water with their saws, as quickly as human swordsmen. The new study … shows the saws are lethal weapons.”

Graduate student Annmarie Fearing and Dr. Nicole Phillips with CHEC’s largetooth sawfish rostrum. Graduate student Annmarie Fearing and Dr. Nicole Phillips with CHEC’s largetooth sawfish rostrum. Sawfish have been plying their deadly trade for millions of years. They are the marine equivalent of living dinosaurs.

Historically, two of the sawfish’s five species swam the United States’ waters — the largetooth sawfish and the smalltooth sawfish.

The last reported sighting of a largetooth sawfish in the United States was in the 1960s. They now live exclusively in the waters of Australia.

Dr. Nicole Phillips extracts DNA from a sawfish. Dr. Nicole Phillips extracts DNA from a sawfish. The smalltooth sawfish, however, is alive — but in deep trouble.

At one time, the smalltooth roamed the waters of the East Coast of the United States, from New York to Brownsville, Texas. Mr. Burgess compares their historic migration patterns to those of all snowbirds. They would head south in the winter to warmer waters and seek the refuge of cooler northern climates in the summer.

With the fall in their numbers, the smalltooth can now be found only in a small number of “hot spots.” They gravitate towards warm estuarine areas where salt and fresh waters meet. When you add mangroves to the equation, you have the perfect habitat for sawfish nurseries and playgrounds.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like our waters, you’re right.

“Without Charlotte Harbor and the Peace and Caloosahatchee rivers, you wouldn’t have the start of the sawfish’s reproductive continuum,” Mr. Burgess said.

Other key areas along the Southwest Florida coast include the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades. Last year, an adult 18-foot sawfish was hooked and released on the Naples Pier, while an estimated 150-pound specimen was caught on video off the coast of Sanibel.

Smalltooth sawfish were granted federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2003; the largetooth followed in 2011. (The state of Florida was ahead of the curve, classifying sawfish as endangered in 1992.) Marine biologists estimate a 90 to 95 percent drop in the sawfish population in the last 100 years.

Humans bear responsibility for that decline.

Protection before posterity

Fishermen have played — and continue to play — a role in the diminution. Bycatch is a significant issue because it’s easy for saws to get caught in commercial fishermen’s nets. Recreational anglers have caught their fair share of sawfish as well. Once a sawfish is out of the water, its chances of survival are slim.

Exploitation also contributed to sawfish’s endangered status. In the past, people caught the fish to use their saws as décor for the walls of bars, restaurants and residences. This practice is now illegal.

And, as always, a tension exists between conservation and development. Our beautiful waterfront seems the perfect spot for condos with water access and office buildings with a view. But there is a price to be paid.

“Every time an exemption is granted to tear down mangroves, there’s a deterioration of the sawfish habitat,” Mr. Burgess said. “The responsibility is on (our) shoulders to do the right thing in terms of growth, development and conservation ethic. You have to think of your great grandchildren and on.”

Once an animal gains protection under the Endangered Species Act, a plan to recover its population must be devised. The objectives of the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Plan are straightforward: to minimize human interactions (and resulting injury and mortality) and to protect and restore sawfish habitats. The ultimate goal is for the sawfish population to increase and spread to more far-flung areas.

It is estimated that full recovery of the smalltooth will take 100 years. Mr. Burgess calls his personal efforts towards sawfish recovery “an act of faith.”

“This homie’s not going to see it,” he noted.

Education is the key to the plan’s success, with fishermen as the primary target of these efforts. They are, after all, the people most likely to get up close and personal with a sawfish. Given the predilection of sawfish for shallow waters, folks casting lines from piers and the shore are almost as likely to catch a sawfish as those out for a day on the water, as what happened off the Naples Pier.

“Congratulations,“ Mr. Burgess would say to those fishermen. “You got the catch of a lifetime. “

But after snagging a sawfish, what a person does next is the important part.

It’s crucial the sawfish remain in the water. The stress alone of being pulled onto a boat or ashore can kill the fish. Not surprisingly, a flailing sawfish can also prove dangerous to people.

In today’s social media-oriented world, Mr. Burgess realizes anyone who’s hooked a sawfish will want a picture before releasing it. And that’s fine, he says–so long as the picture is of the fish in its natural habitat. Once the catch is memorialized, the fish should be released by cutting the line. The hook will take care of itself.

But ensuring sawfish stay water bound is only the first action we can take to promote sawfish survival. Any encounter with a sawfish — including just catching a glimpse of one — should be reported to the International Sawfish Encounter Database, which is the primary means by which the sawfish population is monitored. Reports made to other databases, such as the one maintained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, are funneled into the ISED. Each report includes information about the size of the sawfish, where it was spotted and the nature of the encounter. Completion of the report takes only a few minutes.

Mr. Burgess reports the recovery plan is showing signs of working.

Adult sawfish have recently been seen off the East Coast of Florida, far from their home base. Mr. Burgess compares them to the explorers of days gone by. They are the colonizers, looking to establish a new population.

It’s an exciting development.

Given that largetooth sawfish are no longer found in U.S. waters, it might seem counterintuitive that we can facilitate their recovery.

But we can — just by reporting the location of any sawfish seen on display. These artifacts contain valuable data for marine biologists such as Dr. Phillips and Ms. Fearing. It seems they can learn from the dead as well as the living.

Why do we care?

Dr. Phillips’ goal, with the assistance of Ms. Fearing, is to test the DNA of the rostra of ancient sawfish and compare it to that of more recent sawfish. For these purposes, “ancient” means sawfish that lived within the last 100 years. The last century was chosen because of the significant decline in the sawfish population during this period.

Dr. Phillips’ study of largetooth sawfish began in northern Australia. Her DNA testing of tissue from live sawfish and recently acquired sawfish rostra revealed declining genetic diversity in the population. This finding is cause for concern.

“Low levels of genetic diversity make populations less resistant to disease and environmental change,” he said. “It can also lead to inbreeding, which further weakens the species.”

With her Australian data in hand, Dr. Phillips returned home to broaden her study. She and Ms. Fearing are now testing the DNA of sawfish that lived within the last 100 years. This time frame was chosen because of the significant decline in the sawfish population during that period.

But in order to test the saws, they first have to be located. Ms. Fearing likens the project to “a giant Easter egg hunt across the world.”

She enjoys the detective work necessary to locate ancient rostra. She cold calls environmental centers to inquire whether they have a rostrum that might be tested. Sometimes she gets lucky and finds a saw on site. Other times she gets a lead about another center, bar or home that might have a rostrum.

It was a cold call to Myakka River State Park that led Ms. Fearing and Dr. Phillips to CHEC. When Ms. Fearing spoke with Jon Rodgers, he told her about a saw on display at CHEC’s Cedar Point Environmental Park in Englewood. Coincidentally, his wife Bobbi is the resource manager at this CHEC site and coordinates the lecture program.

It is yet to be determined whether the sample from CHEC’s rostrum will contribute to the study, because with age also comes a deterioration in the saw’s DNA.

Whatever the outcome, Ms. Rodgers said CHEC is excited to have its sawfish rostra included in the study.

Ms. Fearing appeals to Florida Weekly readers to contact her or file a report with the ISED if you know where a saw is on display.

“One report can make a world of difference to sawfish research,” she said.

Why do we care?

For the sake of argument, Mr. Burgess was asked why we care if sawfish become extinct.

“What if there were no mosquitoes, rats or lice?” Mr. Burgess responded.

That didn’t sound so bad.

“Or,” he quickly continued, “What if there were no blue whales, sea turtles or fuzzy little seals with brown eyes?”

This prospect was definitely less appealing.

“We all make value judgments,” Mr. Burgess noted. “But in the ecology of the natural world, all animals have an equal place.”

Even if you do want to draw a line, Mr. Burgess thinks he has a persuasive argument that sawfish should make the cut.

“Sawfish are the most magnificent of all animals,” he said. “And given how ancient they are, they could be considered the patron saint of retirees in Southwest Florida.” ¦

Where to report sawfish information

>> Sawfish encounters or rostra: www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sawfish/report-encounter or 255-7403

>> Location of a sawfish rostrum: sawfi shstudent@gmail.com

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