Scientist notices signs of sawfish population recovering

Published: May. 1, 2018 at 4:13 PM CDT
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Scientists are learning more about the Smalltooth Sawfish, which has been on the endangered species list for the past 15 years.

Research Fishery Biologist Dr. John Carlson studies the behavior of sawfish. Every four to six weeks he and his team goes to the Everglades where they're historically found.

Not only do they use standard spaghetti tags to track the location from one place to another, but they've also been using more sophisticated methods.

"We put satellite tags on the larger animals to give us a GPS location whenever that tag breaks the surface," Dr. Carlson explained. "We have some interesting movements. One animal we tagged in an area off Key Largo that animal went from being offshore all the way into Charlotte Harbor."

Dr. Carlson said the rostrum, or sharp part of the nose of a sawfish, is their "Achilles' heel." Not only can the rostrum hurt anglers who get too close, but the fish themselves get caught in fishing gear. Plus, he said juvenile sawfish like to stay near mangroves. "Around the same time sawfish started declining, we also started to see a decline in mangrove habitat," he said.

According to Dr. Carlson's studies, the population is no longer declining and suggests the population might be going up. He said sawfish sightings used to go all the way from North Carolina and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but since they became endangered, the population clustered in Southwest Florida.

"Since that time, we've been getting more and more records and what we're starting to see is sawfish are beginning to expand back to their historic ranges," Dr. Carlson explained. "When they were listed as endangered, there were two records over 20 years here in the Panhandle. Last year we had six records in 2016 alone in the Florida Panhandle so we're beginning to see them starting to occupy their former range which is a good signal to us recovery is happening. Sawfish could now recover in the 40-50 years under the most optimistic scenarios."

Dr. Carlson offered some safe release guidelines for recreational anglers who might catch sawfish:

1. If you do catch them, keep the animal in the water. If you drag it up the beach, it could damage its organs.

2. Cut the line as close to the hook as possible.

3. Don't get too close to the rostrum because instinctively it will try to hit you, which could cause severe injuries.