Florida Museum of Natural History

Sawfish Conservation

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A Fish Tale: Sawfish Fact and Fiction Through History
By M. Burger
Sawfish Images


Myth #4) Sawfish range from South Pacific waters to New York and their vast numbers are invincible

Not true-smalltooth sawfish populations have been decimated to 95 percent of the abundance they previously sustained in the past century. Their distribution is described as circumtropical, and their range in the Northwestern Atlantic once included territory from Texas northward as far as New York. Their environmental constraints include water temperatures of at least 16-18 degrees Celsius and availability of coastal areas with suitable nursery habitat, so encounters north of Florida are thought to be a result of seasonal migrations of larger individuals in the population. Northern sightings are now rare, and the last stronghold for smalltooth sawfish is in marine and estuarine waters off of southwestern Florida.

The sawfish was at one time thought to be a common nuisance because its rostrum would get easily entangled in nets, and anglers believed its numbers couldn't possibly diminish. In 1884, sawfish were described as being very common in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) and its tributaries, and one fisherman reported catching 300 of them in one fishing season (Everman and Bean 1898). In fact, sawfish used to be so prevalent there that old newspaper reports claimed that you could "walk across their backs". Reports of fishermen harpooning sawfish, throwing them back without their rostra (which were kept as trophies), and even bludgeoning them to death exist.

The abundance of sawfish was not infinite though. In a study spanning several years in the 1980's, researchers didn't catch any sawfish within the IRL system. Subsequent research by the Florida Program for Shark Research (FPSR) from 2007-2010 also failed to document sawfish within the lagoon. Scientists have attributed the decline to excessive accidental captures by commercial fishermen and to habitat loss from anthropogenic activities.

Today, this area is mentioned specifically in the species recovery plan as an area where sawfish numbers have been decimated and a critical habitat that scientists hope sawfish will again be observed in.



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