Sawfish—Cousins of the Shark
Adult smalltooth sawfish captured off Andros Island and tagged with an pop-off archival satellite transmitting (PAT) tag (photo credit: R. Dean Grubbs)
Juvenile smalltooth sawfish being secured prior to measuring, tagging and releasing.
For more information on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Shark Specialist Group sawfish work please visit www.iucnssg.org/index.php/sawfish
Researchers place a tag on a sawfish.
August 15, 2012
What is a Sawfish?
The sawfish is an endangered fish that belongs to a group of fish called elasmobranchs, whose skeletons are made of cartilage. Other elasmobranchs include sharks, skates, rays, and chimeras. Sawfish have a shark-like body and gills on their top side. They are known primarily for their long, toothed nose or “saw” called a rostrum. Sawfish use their rostrum to locate, stun, and kill prey.
All sawfish live in shallow coastal waters to deeper shelf waters and can tolerate a wide range of salinities. Some species swim far into the major rivers and lakes of South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Sawfish reach maturity at a later age (about 10-12 years), and can live up to several decades. They can grow to a large size, some up to 20 feet long.
Why Are Sawfish Endangered?
Sawfish were once common throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Today, sawfish are reliably found in two remaining strongholds where they are strictly protected: Florida and northern Australia. Over the past half-century, the sawfish populations have declined dramatically due to a combination of habitat loss and capture in fisheries, both as the target species and accidentally as bycatch. Historically, fishermen sought sawfish mainly for their meat, with worldwide landings peaking in 1978.
Today, incidental capture in other fisheries is the primary threat because sawfish are extremely vulnerable to entanglement in nets, lines, and trawls. NOAA Fisheries has developed guidelines for U.S. fishermen on how to safely handle and release any sawfish they catch. While rarely captured today, sawfish are often retained in other countries because of the value of their saws, fins, and saw teeth in illegal wildlife trade markets.
Close up photograph of a juvenile smalltooth sawfish
head and rostrum.
How Do We Protect Sawfish?
Because of the threat to sawfish from trade, all species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Commercial trade in all sawfish, except for one Australian species traded for commercial aquaria, is prohibited. Today, all species of sawfish are "critically endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
In the United States, only one species can be found—the smalltooth sawfish. Largetooth are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) throughout its range. The U.S. population of smalltooth sawfish is also listed as endangered under the ESA. NOAA Fisheries is currently considering a petition requesting protection of the remaining sawfish species occurring outside United States’ waters under the ESA.
NOAA International Collaboration on Sawfish Conservation
Through international cooperation and conservation efforts, NOAA Fisheries and the IUCN are working with our partners to ensure we don’t lose these amazing fish. The IUCN Shark Specialist Group recently initiated a Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy in response to the dramatic depletion of all sawfish species. With support from NOAA Fisheries, the Group held a workshop in May 2012 that brought together 29 shark and sawfish experts from 11 countries. These experts developed priorities for research, education, and conservation actions to aid in the protection and recovery of sawfish populations around the world. Some key policy recommendations and conservation activities the Group identified include:
Training people in local fisheries to conduct sawfish surveys in key regions, including West Africa, Borneo, Brazil, India, and Papua New Guinea.
Helping these key regions develop national and regional plans to recover sawfish.
Creating manuals to aid fishermen, customs agents, and enforcement personnel in identifying sawfish and sawfish parts to prevent illegal trade; and
Reducing sawfish bycatch in trawl and gillnet fisheries in southeast Asia and other bycatch hotspots around the world.