Florida Fish Expert Tries to Save the Last Sawfish

GAINESVILLE, Florida, December 8, 2008 (ENS) - "Today, it's difficult to find a bar in South Florida that doesn't have a sawfish 'saw' hanging on the wall," says George Burgess, a University of Florida ichthyologist, or fish expert.

Burgess serves as curator of the International Shark Attack File and also as keeper of the newly expanded National Sawfish Encounter Database, a repository of all known historical and current records of sawfish in the United States.

Distinguished by a long rostrum or "saw" that makes it a popular curio item and gives the fish its name, the sawfish has become a historical and cultural icon that is rapidly disappearing.

Sawfish once swam in bays, lagoons and rivers from New York to the Rio Grande, Burgess said. Today, the species' U.S. range has shrunk to the waters off south Florida. On April 1, 2003 the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service placed the smalltooth sawfish on the Endangered Species List, making it the first marine fish species to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Two sub-species of sawfish exist - the smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata, shares the western Atlantic and parts of the eastern Atlantic with the largetooth sawfish, P. perotteti.

"Sawfish are disappearing all over the world for basically the same reason, which is that their big saws snag very easily in fishing nets," he said. "They have become despised as net wreckers because obviously a fisherman doesn't like getting one in his net. So over the years most sawfish that were captured were killed."

Even those sawfish lucky enough to be tossed back into the water were often released without their saws, as people came to value these body parts as curio items, Burgess said.

Although the sawfish's body resembles a shark, the sawfish belongs to a class of fish called rays. Its elongated blade-like snout is used to stun and kill prey.

To expand and consolidate information on the species distribution, the existing Florida Museum of Natural History records on sawfish are being merged with a database formerly housed at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, and with the database of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Information gathered by two private sawfish enthusiasts is being added.

Data from the collections will reveal the known distribution of sawfish throughout the United States.

Burgess and a team of scientists at the Florida Museum of History on the University of Florida campus plan to use the newly expanded sawfish database to enhance a management plan developed to help speed recovery of the species.

Burgess plans to contribute new research results as he and his team monitor the abundance of sawfish and use tags to track their movements within the Indian River Lagoon and Banana River along Florida's east coast.

This area is critical to the recovery of the once widespread species, Burgess said.

Historically, the region was full of sawfish, but the numbers fell as development encroached on their coastal habitat and encounters with humans increased.

"Sawfish get lots of ooh's and aah's because humans tend to gravitate to the more charismatic megafauna, as it is characterized," he said. "We place more values on whales than their kin the field mice or the brown-eyed seal more than we do some wood rat."

Part of the sawfish's appeal may also be its increasing rarity, said Burgess, who estimates there are only a few thousand sawfish left in Florida.

Although the sawfish has a long life span of 30 years or more, it is a live-bearer. As such, it has a prolonged gestation period and produces very few young, he said.

Because of its unusually slow growth, late onset of sexual maturity and low reproductive potential, it will take a long time for the sawfish population to recover, Burgess said.

Anyone who sees a sawfish is asked to contact Burgess's team at 352-392-2360 or sawfish@flmnh.ufl.edu so they can record the sighting's location. Mapping the sawfish's distribution is important in fine-tuning the management plan developed to protect the endangered species, he said.

More information about how to file a sawfish sighting report and what kind of details to include can be obtained from the museum's website at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/sawfish/.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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