Sawfish have a reason to breathe a little easier today: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has completed comprehensive status reviews under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and has determined that five foreign species of sawfish meet the definition of “endangered” under the Act. Of course, this “victory” is bittersweet: no one is celebrating the fact that sawfish species are endangered, but rather that they now will finally receive the protections they so desperately need to recover their numbers.
Under this new ruling, the narrow sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidate), dwarf sawfish (Pristis clavata), largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis), green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) and smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) meet the definition of “endangered species”: one that is presently in danger of extinction.
Sawfish are a remarkable group in the shark and ray family, collectively known as elasmobranchs. Sawfish are actually modified rays with a shark-like body and gill slits on their abdominal side. They are characterized by their large, flat, toothed snout or “saws” with large teeth spanning each side. Sawfish use their snout as a weapon to kill and capture prey, and also as a sensory organ to detect and locate buried critters in murky waters. Recent studies suggest that sawfish also use their rostrum to sense their prey’s electric fields.
The U.S. population of smalltooth sawfish is already currently listed as endangered under the ESA. First designated in 2003, the smalltooth sawfish was actually the first U.S. marine fish to be listed under the ESA. Sawfish populations have declined by as much as 99% in some cases, making them among some of the most endangered fish in the world. There are only seven recognized species of sawfish, all of which are listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List. Like most sharks, sawfish grow slowly, mature late, and bear few young, making them particularly vulnerable to threats such as bycatch and illegal fishing. The toothy snouts of sawfish catch easily in fishing lines and nets, and because sawfish can damage fishing gear or injure fishermen, they are often killed before being removed from fishing gear, even if they are only to be thrown back dead afterwards.
Despite being considered critically endangered around the world and being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (effectively restricting trade), sawfish are illegally harvested for their “saws” which have great significance to some cultures, and which are sold as curios around the world. Their fins are also highly desirable in the shark fin soup trade. Loss of habitat has also seriously affected sawfish populations throughout the world.
Following their approval as endangered species, sawfish will finally begin to receive the protections they so urgently need. An Endangered Species Recovery Plan will be created for each species, outlining the goals, actions, timeline, and estimated costs to recover the endangered species. Federal agencies will also be required to consult with NMFS to ensure that their actions do not jeopardize the species or their habitat. Perhaps most importantly, any further import, export, use in foreign commerce, hunting, or capture of these sawfish species will be prohibited.
Early sawfish (distant cousins to today’s species) appeared in the ocean nearly 100 million years ago, while modern day species have roamed the oceans for the last 56 million years. With any luck, the Endangered Species Act will give these ancient creatures the protections and recognition they need for an abundant future.