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Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata)

Status | Taxonomy | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution |
Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview |
Key Documents | More Info


Smalltooth Sawfish, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Smalltooth sawfish
(Pristis pectinata)
Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

smalltooth sawfish critical habitat map - florida
Smalltooth Sawfish Critical Habitat
(click for larger view PDF)



ESA Endangered - U.S. "distinct population segment (DPS)"and non-U.S. DPS
CITES Appendix I - throughout its range

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chondrichthyes
Order: Pristiformes
Family: Pristidae
Genus: Pristis
Species: pectinata

Species Description
Weight: 770 pounds (350 kg)
Length: 18-25 feet (5.5-7 m)
Appearance:  known for their "saws," long, flat snouts edged with pairs of teeth
Lifespan: 25-30 years
Diet: mostly fish, but also crustaceans
Behavior: "ovoviviparous," meaning the mother holds the eggs inside of her until the young are ready to be born

Sawfish, like sharks, skates and rays, belong to a group of fish called elasmobranchs, whose skeletons are made of cartilage. Sawfish are actually modified rays with a shark-like body and gill slits on their ventral side.

Early sawfish arose around 100 million years ago, but these first sawfish are actually distant cousins to modern day sawfishes, though even the modern sawfish we know today first appeared around 56 million years ago.

Sawfish get their name from their "saws"--long, flat snouts edged with pairs of teeth which are used to locate, stun, and kill prey. They have 25-29 teeth per side. Males have broader teeth than females. Their diet includes mostly fish but also some crustaceans.

The smalltooth sawfish is one of two species of sawfish that inhabit U.S. waters (the other being the largetooth sawfish, although it has not been found in the United States in 50 years). The body of the smalltooth sawfish is an olive grey color dorsally, with a white ventral surface.

Smalltooth sawfish inhabit shallow coastal waters of tropical seas and estuaries throughout the world. They are usually found in shallow waters (less than 32 feet (10 m)), very close to shore over muddy and sandy bottoms. They are often found in sheltered bays, on shallow banks, and in estuaries or river mouths. They prefer warmer water temperature of 22-28°C (71-82°F). They are known to ascend inland in river systems and have been shown to have a salinity preference of 18-24 parts per thousand.

Critical Habitat

NMFS designated critical habitat for smalltooth sawfish in September 2009 (74 FR 45353).

smalltooth sawfish critical habitat map - florida
Smalltooth Sawfish Critical Habitat
(click for larger view PDF)

In the U.S., smalltooth sawfish are found in the peninsula of Florida, common only in the Everglades region at the southern tip of the state.

In other parts of the Atlantic, smalltooth sawfish have only been confirmed in the Bahamas. However, anecdotal reports indicate smalltooth sawfish occur in localized areas off Honduras, Belize, and Cuba. There has been only one confirmed record of a smalltooth sawfish in the eastern Atlantic, in Sierra Leone, west Africa. They are also thought to occur in Guinea Bissau.

Historically, the U.S. population was common throughout the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida, and along the east coast from Florida to North Carolina.

Outside U.S. waters, smalltooth sawfish were historically reported in many areas, though sightings in areas other than the Atlantic Ocean were likely misidentifications of other sawfish:

  • South Africa
  • Madagascar
  • Red Sea
  • Arabia
  • India
  • Philippines
  • coast of west Africa
  • Brazil
  • Ecuador
  • Caribbean Sea
  • Mexico (in Gulf of Mexico)
  • Bermuda

Population Trends
No accurate estimates of abundance trends over time are available, but available data, including museum records and anecdotal observations from fishers, indicate that the population has declined dramatically by about 95%. Smallooth sawfish were once common throughout their historic range, but they have declined dramatically in U.S. waters over the last century. Still, there are few reliable data available, and no robust estimates of population size exist.

smalltooth sawfish entangled in fishing gear; Florida Museum of Natural History
Smalltooth sawfish entangled in fishing line
(Pristis pectinata)
Photo: © Florida Museum of Natural History This link is an external site.


  • bycatch in various fisheries, especially in gill nets
  • loss of juvenile habitat

Because adults can grow very large, and potentially damage fishing gear or even pose a threat to fishermen, many incidentally captured sawfish were killed before they were removed from fishing gear, even if the fishermen had no interest in keeping them.

Juvenile sawfish use shallow habitats with a lot of vegetation, such as mangrove forests, as important nursery areas. Many such habitats have been modified or lost due to development of the waterfront in Florida and other southeastern states. The loss of juvenile habitat likely contributed to the decline of this species.

Conservation Efforts
NMFS convened the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Team This link is an external site., comprising sawfish scientists, managers, and environmental managers, to develop a plan to recover the U.S. DPS of smalltooth sawfish. The team published the final recovery plan [pdf] in January 2009. The plan recommends specific steps to recover the DPS, focusing on:

  • reducing fishing impacts
  • protecting important habitats
  • educating the public

Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it is illegal to catch or harm an endangered sawfish. However, some fishermen catch sawfish incidentally while fishing for other species. NMFS and the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Team have developed guidelines to fishermen [pdf] telling them how to safely handle and release any sawfish they catch.

Some states have taken additional step to protect this species. Florida, Louisiana, and Texas have prohibited the "take" of sawfish. Florida's existing ban on the use of gill nets in state waters is an important conservation tool. Three National Wildlife Refuges in Florida also protect their habitat.

All sawfish (Pristidae) species are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which limits international trade of sawfish.

Regulatory Overview
The smalltooth sawfish was added to the candidate species list in 1991, removed in 1997, and placed back on the list again in 1999. In November 1999, we received a petition from the Ocean Conservancy (formerly the Center for Marine Conservation) requesting that this species be listed as endangered under the ESA.

We completed a status review in December 2000. On April 16, 2001, we published a proposed rule to list the U.S. distinct population segment (DPS) of this species as endangered. On April 1, 2003, we published a final rule listing this DPS as an endangered species under the ESA.

In 2009, we published the final recovery plan [pdf] and designated critical habitat for the U.S. DPS. We completed a 5-Year review in 2010.

In September 2010, we received a petition from WildEarth Guardians requesting that the non-U.S. population(s) of this species be listed under the ESA. On June 4, 2013, we published a proposed rule to list the non-U.S. DPS of this species as endangered.

In December 2014, we published the final rule to list the non-U.S. DPS as endangered.

Key Documents
(All documents are in PDF format.)

Title Federal Register Date
Final Listing of 5 Species of Sawfish 79 FR 73978 12/12/2014
12-Month Finding and Proposed Endangered Listing of Five Species of Sawfish 78 FR 33300 06/04/2013

90-day finding on petition to list the non-ESA-listed population(s)

76 FR 12308 03/07/2011
5-Year Review for U.S. DPS   10/2010
Final Critical Habitat 74 FR 45353 09/02/2009
Final Recovery Plan 74 FR 3566 01/21/2009
Proposed Critical Habitat 73 FR 70290 11/20/2008
5-Year Review Initiated for U.S. DPS 73 FR 29482 05/21/2008
Draft Recovery Plan 71 FR 49418 08/23/2006
ESA Listing Rule for the U.S. DPS 68 FR 15674 04/01/2003
Proposed Endangered Status for U.S. DPS 66 FR 19414 04/16/2001
Status Review Report
(Note: Appendix A is best printed on 11x17" paper)
n/a 12/2000
90-Day findings for a Petition to list North American populations of smalltooth sawfish and largetooth sawfish as endangered under the ESA 65 FR 12959 03/10/2000
Petition to list North American populations of sawfish (Pristis pectinata and Pristis perotteti) as endangered n/a 11/30/1999

More Information


  • Adams, W. F. and C. Wilson. 1995. The status of the smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata Latham 1794 (Pristiformes: Pristidae) in the United States. Chondros 6:1-5.

Updated: December 16, 2014

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