Species Replenishment Story

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Pregnant female sawfish found by Dr. Dean Grubbs and team at Andros Island. Photo © Dean Grubbs

Thanks to Ted Williams at Cool Green Science:

Recovery: Smalltooth Sawfish Flickering Back

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What goes down April 12, 2017 on a Sanibel, Florida beach is both encouraging and discouraging.

Angler and shark tagger Elliot Sudal hooks something huge. A crowd gathers including Vice President Mike Pence accompanied by his entourage of Secret Service agents who rifle through Sudal’s tackle box. Not surprisingly, they find (and temporarily confiscate) knives. But Sudal, seated and straining on the rod with blistered hands, is hardly a threat. Pence safely takes photos, then poses for a photo next to the embattled Sudal.

After 11 hours a 13-foot smalltooth sawfish writhes in the wash. Two onlookers fasten a rope to the tail and haul it thrashing onto the sand. Sudal inserts a shark tag, measures the fish and cuts the line. A video of the fight goes viral, garnering thousands of “likes.” Wink News identifies the animal as a “sawfish shark.”

There’s no such thing; sawfish are highly modified rays.

What was discouraging is the public ignorance behind such Endangered Species Act (ESA) violations. “These kinds of encounters are frustrating for us,” declares smalltooth sawfish recovery-team member Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International and who, while at the Ocean Conservancy, cowrote the petition for endangered status. “Only a handful of people are permitted to tag sawfish. This person wasn’t. We can’t have the public doing this stuff. You need to release sawfish right away. You can’t drag them around or take them out of the water.”

And this from recovery-team member George Burgess of the Florida Museum of Natural History: “We record every sawfish capture, sighting or encounter everywhere in the world. There are still guys doing nasty things to sawfish. I blame elevated testosterone. We tell them it could cost them $10,000.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) won’t take any action against him or his assistants. The agency is more concerned about illegal traffic in sawfish parts, usually rostra (saws). Fordham and her fellow recovery-team member Tonya Wiley, president of Havenworth Coastal Conservation, monitor auction and sale sites that offer sawfish parts; eBay pulls the illegal, post-listing ads.

What was encouraging is that the sawfish was there; the population is down by an estimated 95 percent. The species, which can grow to 17 feet, once occurred from New York to Texas. Now its U.S. range is restricted mostly to southwest Florida (the original core area), though there has been some recent expansion west and along the East Coast…

Read the whole story here.

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