Florida Museum of Natural History

Sawfish Conservation

Sawfish Images

Smalltooth Sawfish Stakeholder Workshop: December 1-2, 2010

On December 1 and 2, 2010, The Gulf and South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation, Inc. hosted the first smalltooth sawfish stakeholder workshop as part of consultation regarding commercial shrimp trawl fisheries exceeding annual incidental catch limits in 2009 and 2010.

The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) is listed as an endangered species in the United States under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As a result, fisheries occurring in sawfish habitat are subject to review to determine if the fishery is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the species. In 2005, the fishery was reviewed and it was found that the continuation of the fishery would not result in jeopardy, allowing consultations to begin to determine how sawfish bycatch could be minimized during regular fishing activities. In 2006, NMFS approved a biological opinion of the species with regard to the shrimp trawl fishery, concluding that one sawfish could be permitted as a legal incidental take per year. In the opinion, it was assumed that all sawfish caught in shrimp trawls result in the death of the fish. If this limit is exceeded, consultations would be re-initiated to determine what reasonable and prudent measures could be taken to further reduce sawfish bycatch and mortality.

On March 5, 6, and 9, 2009, three sawfish were caught in shrimp trawls observed by trained NMFS at-sea observers. Of these three encounters, two sawfish were believed to have died as a result of the interaction. In December 2009 another sawfish was caught on an observer staffed shrimp trawl vessel. In 2010, two more interactions have occurred; one in February and the other in June. Of these two interactions, one sawfish likely died. As a result of these observed captures, consultations between NMFS and the shrimp trawl industry were resumed to determine if and how bycatch and mortality associated with commercial shrimp trawling could be reduced; resulting in the stakeholder workshop in December 2010.

The workshop was held at the Sheraton Suites Hotel in Tampa, Florida and featured presentations by NMFS, Florida FWC, researchers, NGOs, and regional fishery management council members with an audience of commercial shrimp fishermen, fish house operators, and lobbyists. Presentations focused on the management of the fishery and the events that lead up to the re-initiation of consultations, current research, and the standpoint of NGOs. In sawfish research, Dr. Caitlin Curtis (FWC) reviewed smalltooth sawfish population genetics, finding that sawfish in the Caloosahatchee and Peace Rivers show relatively robust genetic variability, young related individuals remain near one another in nursery areas, and juveniles also use nursery areas. Gregg Poulakis (FWC) discussed FWC sawfish research, including acoustic tagging, reporting of several sawfish "hotspots" in Charlotte Harbor, and that older sawfish tend to stay in these hotspots longer than young sawfish before moving elsewhere. Further, Poulakis showed data suggesting that following large rainfall events, sawfish often inhabit downstream portions of rivers near the mouth, while inhabiting upriver habitats in dry seasons. Finally, Bennie Gallaway (LGL Ecol. Research Assoc., Inc.) demonstrated the reasons that assigning trawl effort is often difficult when ships are staying out longer, venturing farther from their home ports, species of interest are not evenly distributed, and effort must be calculated on a monthly basis. With current technology, researchers are getting a better estimate of shrimp trawl effort and distribution; however it is difficult to assign historic trawl data to a month and statistical zones, as used by NMFS.

Representing the Florida Museum of Natural History and National Sawfish Encounter Database (NSED) were George Burgess, Smalltooth Sawfish Status Review and Recovery Team, and John Waters, NSED technician. They provided information on the database and current and future research and Burgess presented an overview of the reported sawfish interactions in various fisheries as represented in the NSED, complementing presentations made by John Carlson, Shelley Norton, and Jennifer Lee (NMFS), which detailed the history and biology of the species. Overall, the workshop provided the NSED a great opportunity to connect with commercial fishermen and fish house operators to learn more about historic encounters, as well as the potential for inclusion of future encounters via encounter reporting.

Overall, the workshop was a successful forum for managers, researchers, NGOs and the shrimp industry to discuss the state of the fishery with respect to sawfish and discuss acceptable measures to reduce future bycatch and mortality rates. The workshop also highlighted that not all shrimp trawl interactions result in the death of the fish, as previously assumed, but the mortality rate for this fishery is still believed to be relatively high. To reduce sawfish mortality rates, several methods of safe-handling methods were discussed. These methods will need to be tested more fully, but hold great potential to insure that fewer sawfish caught in shrimp trawls die. In the future, another Biological Opinion will be issued based on the results of this workshop and measures will be developed in conjunction with the shrimp industry to reduce bycatch and mortality rates for future encounters.

(Account of workshop courtesy John Waters, National Sawfish Encounter Database.)