Smalltooth Sawfish Still in the Florida Keys

Juveniles double in size during their first year, growing from a birth length of 2.5 feet up to 5 feet
Juveniles double in size during their first year, growing from a birth length of 2.5 feet up to 5 feet

The Florida Keys are one of the few spots left in the world to see the endangered sawfish. Wiped out by longline nets and fishermen who mostly wanted to collect their saws or nostrum, scientists are studying the population in the United States and welcome reports of sightings. 

Despite looking like sharks, sawfish are actually rays because their mouth and gill slits are found under their head. They use their distinctive nose or saw to find food such as shrimp or fish as they swim along the sea bottom. The scientific name for the smalltooth sawfish is Pristis pectinata. 

There, also, is a largetooth sawfish but they are almost extinct, and researchers are hopeful the smalltooth sawfish are not headed toward extinction as well. While largetooth sawfish were common in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1900s, they became severely depleted by the 1950s. The last confirmed reports of largetooth date to 1943 in Florida and 1961 in Texas. A few remain around Brazil, said Tonya Wiley, who lectured at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West.

Researchers aim to learn more about smalltooth sawfish and their whereabouts. Fifty percent of Pristis pectinata can be found from Naples, Fla. around the peninsula to Miami. There’s been a big decline in the northern distribution of sawfish,” said Wiley. Around 99 percent of their historical range and migration pattern from Texas to New York is no more. The main reasons for decline are being a sought-after sportfish and being bycatch caught by shrimp trawlers and gill nets. Destruction of inshore habitat and a low reproduction potential also added to their demise. 

FWRI’s smalltooth sawfish research team works out of our Charlotte Harbor Field Laboratory
FWRI’s smalltooth sawfish research team works out of our Charlotte Harbor Field Laboratory

Reproduction studies determined sawfish are about two feet long when born and they can grow to nearly 20 feet. Not a lot is known about their life cycles. A photograph from Melbourne, Fla. dating to 1912 showed a sawfish with 12 pups. Interestingly, the saw-teeth are covered in a gelatinous substance when the babies are born to protect the mother. When born, they seek refuge in the mangrove roots while hanging out in shallow water. To reproduce, they must be about 12 feet long and about 10 to 12 years old. The largest ever caught in Florida was 15 feet, four inches long and weighed 648 pounds. It was caught in Florida Bay in 1961, and Wiley said no sawfish likely will surpass that given their current status.

While sawfish teeth break, for example on a rock, they can grow back, but the rostrum cannot. Sawfish without one would have to scavenge on the bottom for food and most likely will die.

In response to sawfish disappearance, sawfish were protected, and harvest was banned in 1992. In 1995, the Florida gill net ban helped eliminate species depletion. The species’ recovery likely will take a century. In order for smalltooth sawfish to be considered “recovered,” there has to be many more sightings of them and their range would have to increase. For that reason, agencies are encouraging reporting sightings. While some fishing guides worry about area closings, Wiley pointed out there is no greater protection than what already exists, which is that of an endangered species where harvest is not allowed. “Education of fishermen is key,” Wiley said. “We can’t add any more regulations than already exist.”

Dr. Poulakis holds a sawfish that was sampled in March 2014 near Matlacha, FL
Dr. Poulakis holds a sawfish that was sampled in March 2014 near Matlacha, FL

Compared to the endangered Florida panther, which often cannot survive being hit by a car, a sawfish can survive being caught if left in the water and released. “We need the public to help us with recovery efforts.”

Motorists headed to the Keys likely will notice a billboard in Florida City for the coming year where the Florida turnpike ends and the Overseas Highway begins. It encourages reporting sawfish sightings by calling 1-844-4SAWFISH.

Jill Borski
Jill Zima Borski lives in Islamorada, Fla. and is board chair of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Her website is www.jill-zima-borski.com