For most people, seeing a sawfish is not an everyday occurrence. In fact, most folks don’t even know they exist in Florida. They are nowhere near as numerous as they used to be, and their range has diminished significantly, but sawfish seem to be maintaining a small core population along the Southwest Florida coast.
In June, the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s “Summer of Sharks” lecture series welcomed George Burgess, director of the University of Florida’s Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History and curator of the National Sawfish Encounter Database. In his presentation on sawfish, we learned about their history, population dynamics, threats and the incredible importance of pristine, mangrove-forested habitat to these unique shark and ray relatives.
According to Burgess, sawfish once roamed the sea floor from North Carolina to Texas and south to Brazil, but they were often regarded as killers, thieves and misunderstood oddities. They were easily entangled in fishing gear and saws were frequently taken as trophies or sold as curios. With the increase of human activity over the 20th century, a combination of habitat loss, fishing pressure and incidental bycatch dramatically decreased their populations worldwide.
Sawfish research in Florida began in 1999, and smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) population estimates are between 5,000 and 10,000. Sawfish reach lengths up to 18 feet and reproduce at a very slow rate. The extremely small existing population makes it difficult to learn about their life history. One thing we do know is that mangrove-forested estuaries are crucial as sawfish breeding sites.
Baby sawfish, or “neonates,” are extremely vulnerable to predators such as crocodiles, sharks and even dolphins, which is why the protective shelter provided by mangrove estuaries is so important. Plus, estuaries provide a very productive food resource, making it easy for young to find food.
Reserve biologist Pat O’Donnell knows this firsthand. Since 2000, when he began monthly shark research, O’Donnell has captured, documented and released almost 30 sawfish. Ranging in size from 31 to 96 inches, it is clear that juveniles are using the sandy bottom estuaries of the Ten Thousand Islands as habitat.
In 2003, the smalltooth sawfish was federally designated as an endangered species, making it illegal to catch, possess or harm them. In 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated more than 600,000 acres in the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades National Park as critical habitat for this species. The Reserve continues to conduct research and educate visitors about this amazing and important underwater creature.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas, in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.