GAINESVILE, Fla. — University of Florida researchers are hosting educators from throughout the state for its annual “Sawfish In Peril Educator Workshop” from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.
As one of the few institutions tracking and protecting the endangered sawfish, the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Florida Program for Shark Research developed the workshop to help educators facilitate sawfish awareness and conservation programs in their local school districts and environmental education facilities.
“Sawfish are animals that can go extinct if we’re not very careful,” said Florida Program for Shark Research Director George Burgess. “Part of our mission here as a program is to not only conduct research on these animals, but to give them the maximum amount of protection they can receive.”
Twenty-three educators from high schools, aquariums and environmental agencies will hear presentations from a variety of researchers, participate in a stingray dissection activity and receive kits that include an instructor’s guide, teaching activities and Power Point presentations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service is funding the workshop, and annual sawfish educator workshops are planned for at least the next two years.
“The workshop is a continuation of our overall efforts to make people aware that this is a problem and that it’s in our backyard,” Burgess said. “We have a special obligation as Floridians to work hard to save what’s left of these creatures and oversee their hopeful return.”
Because sawfish have always been recognized as an exceptionally rare animal, their decline has slipped past scientists in the last 100 years, Burgess said. Records maintained by the shark program’s National Sawfish Encounter Database help researchers understand changes in habitat. In 2010, sightings were only reported in Florida, while the sawfish’s territory in the past ranged from New York to Texas.
“We hear from commercial fishermen who have been on the water 30 years and never seen one,” said sawfish database technician John Waters, who will present range maps at the workshop. “We put out a lot of brochures, fliers, boat signs for ramps – pretty much anything we can get out to people – to let them know we’re interested so they will report the sawfish when they see them.”
Sawfish can grow to 25 feet long and their decline is mainly attributed to over-fishing and habitat destruction, Burgess said. Similar to sharks, sawfish are elasmobranches, or cartilaginous fishes, but belong in the family of rays. Sawfish have been traced in the fossil record to at least 130 million years, but information about their biology is limited because the animal became endangered before specimens could be collected for research. Scientists estimate they can live from 30 to 60 years.
The small-toothed sawfish was the first marine animal placed on the endangered species list, and thanks to information collected through the national encounter database, the large-toothed sawfish will soon be added to the list, Burgess said.
“Part of our mission here is education outreach in addition to our normal research and conservation management,” Burgess said. “Nowhere is that more important than in sawfish.”
Pre-registered participants will attend the workshop, held at Powell Hall near the intersection of Southwest 34th Street and Hull Road. For more information about sawfish or to report a sighting, visit www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/sawfish/.
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