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Researchers on the lookout for rare sawfish in lagoon

STORY BY SUE COCKING (Week of May 13, 2021)

There are some really odd-looking creatures swimming in the Indian River Lagoon that most boaters, swimmers and anglers have never seen in the wild before – sawfish.

If you are lucky enough to spot one, a team of marine scientists in Florida and elsewhere would really like to know about it. 

Don’t worry – you’ll know it when you see the smalltooth sawfish. It looks like a triangular shark with a long, narrow, tooth-lined bill called a rostrum sticking out from its head that it uses to whack and trap smaller fish. The babies are about 2 feet long; a full-grown adult can reach 16 feet.

A common sight in Atlantic and Gulf waters from Texas to North Carolina in the first half of the 20th century, the smalltooth sawfish – which actually is a type of ray and not a fish – now is a critically endangered species in the United States.

The creature was added to the endangered species list in 2003 after decades of decimation by fishermen whose nets it tangled; trophy fishermen who collected its distinctive bill; harvesters for the international shark fin soup trade and aquarium industry; and development that destroyed its inshore mangrove habitat. 

These days, the population size is unknown, but mostly concentrated along the state’s southwestern tip in Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands. Even with no fishing allowed and a federal designation of some mangrove areas as critical juvenile habitat, scientists say it could take decades for the species to recover enough to avoid extinction.

But sawfish do seem to be making a comeback. Recently, scientists from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute caught and implanted tracking tags on three of the animals in the St. Lucie River. Three other large ones were spotted in the lagoon near Melbourne Beach.

Tonya Wiley, one of the researchers on the National Marine Fisheries Service's sawfish recovery team, said scientists need help from area residents.

“If you see one, let us know,” Wiley told a webinar conducted by the Palm Bay-based Marine Resources Council. “We expect the population to start spreading out, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon where they used to live.”

Wiley said more reports of sightings are needed to help scientists fill in critical knowledge gaps about sawfish movements and life history – especially the adults – such as how many individuals there are; how long they live; where they feed and mate; and where they migrate.

Juvenile sawfish, she said, are typically observed in estuaries in waters less than three feet deep near mangroves that provide cover from predators.

“We’re starting to get some reports,” Wiley said, “but we don’t have enough reports to come up with a pattern yet. If we find a nursery area in the Indian River Lagoon or find where they mate, then we would definitely want to protect that habitat.”

Sawfish sightings can be reported by calling 1-844-4SAWFISH or logging on to