Imagine if you can, a ray, crossed with a shark, possessing a hedge trimmer for a snout, and you will have a pretty good image of the smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata). Truly, one of the oddest-looking creatures of the animal kingdom, the smalltooth sawfish is one of our unique estuarine and marine species that has experienced dramatic declines throughout its range and was the first marine fish to receive “endangered” status under the Endangered Species Act when it was listed in 2003.
There are five to seven species of sawfish worldwide (depending on the taxonomy convention used) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed them all as “endangered,” with the smalltooth, largetooth and green sawfish species being listed as “critically endangered.” They are also listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) so any commercial trade in these animals is prohibited, with the exception of extremely limited permission for use in public aquaria.
Two species of sawfish (largetooth and smalltooth) have historically inhabited the Gulf of Mexico as part of their range but the largetooth sawfish, which has a more extensive range worldwide is considered extremely rare in the Gulf now (infrequent reports on the Texas coast). The historic range of smalltooth sawfish extended at one time from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to New York but it is now limited to peninsular Florida on the Atlantic side, the Florida Keys, and up the Gulf coast of Florida into the Panhandle. However, it is estimated that about 50 percent of the entire population is limited to the Keys and Southwest Florida only, with 90 percent being contained along the lower one half of the peninsula on either coast. It would indeed be rare to see one in the Apalachicola Bay area today.
Biologically, sawfish are considered to be rays and if you look on their underside you will see why. Their gills are on the bottom, rather than on the sides of their head like sharks. Their mouth is also built like a ray’s and they have similar teeth which are adapted more for grinding than slicing. Food is captured by slashing the “toothy” rostrum through schools of baitfish to stun them. It is also thought that sawfish may use their snout for excavation of benthic invertebrates as well.
Precipitous declines have been attributed to habitat degradation of the estuary nursery areas where birthing takes place as well as overfishing in the past, through both intentional and incidental catch by hook & line fishermen, and in nets. There is no legal catch for these species now and current law requires accidentally caught sawfish to be carefully released.
Scientists are very interested in any sightings of these fish and if you do encounter one it would be valuable information to report. George Burgess, of UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History, is maintaining the National Sawfish Encounter Database (NSED) to gather this vital data to better understand the status of this declining species. If you or anyone you know of encounters a sawfish while on the water, please call (352) 392-2360 to report it.
If you accidentally hook a sawfish while fishing for other species you should cut the line as close to the hook as possible to release the fish. Care must be taken though, as a large sawfish is a powerful animal with a serious defensive tool. Please help with conservation efforts by calling the number above with any sightings in our area.
Erik Lovestrand is the UF/IFAS/Sea Grant extension agent for Franklin County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org