Securing a safe future for sawfishes

Shark and ray experts gathered this week at ZSL to address the plight of the most threatened marine fishes in the world – the sawfishes. 

The workshop, convened by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) aims to pioneer the development of a global action plan to bring these iconic species back from the brink of extinction.

Once found in tropical and subtropical waters throughout the world, all 7 sawfish species are presently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. They have been revered by coastal societies throughout the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific Oceans for centuries. Today, ancient art, folklore, and mythology are almost all that is left to remind us of how widespread and abundant they were. Sawfishes are still featured on Thai postage stamps and West African currency, but the chance of seeing a sawfish anywhere other than the USA or Australia is exceedingly low.

Sawfishes can be easily identified by their long, toothed rostra or “saws”. Long valued for medicinal and cultural purposes, and as curios, this distinctive feature has been central to their downfall. Rostra are easily entangled in the fishing nets used extensively throughout the shallow coastal waters and river estuaries where sawfishes live.

Beyond this vulnerability to fishing gear, sawfishes - like other rays and sharks - are susceptible to overfishing because they grow slowly, mature late, and produce few young. The loss of coastal habitats that are critical for sawfish - particularly mangroves - also poses a threat to their survival, as does the demand for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup.

Trade in sawfish parts was banned through listing on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2007. Sawfishes are being protected but remain unprotected in key regions of Africa and Asia. Around the world, sawfish conservation is hampered by a lack of awareness, political will, and financial resources.

SSG leaders will present the key results of the meeting to policy makers during the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Committee on Fisheries in July, and the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September, and expect to publish the final Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy in early 2013.

Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy Group
Workshop attendees at ZSL

Bimini Sawfish
A large female smalltooth sawfish photographed on 5 May 2012. Photo credit: Emily Marcus

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