A recent sawfish sighting off the coast of Cedar Key suggests the endangered species might be rebounding.
The core population of sawfish exists near the Everglades and Florida Keys. And even there among the mangrove forests, where the large animals are known to be found, catching one is rare.
That’s why Dean Grubbs — a co-instructor for a collegiate shark field course — didn’t expect he and fellow instructor Gavin Naylor would catch a 13-foot female smalltooth sawfish in June. Especially when they were hundreds of miles away from Florida’s southern tip.
Grubbs, who is also a member of the U.S. Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Implementation Team, said they set a few lines that are intended to catch sawfish and used ladyfish as bait. But at best, he thought the sets might attract several different sharks for his students to observe and tag.
“I always sort of thought of it as ‘Oh I know this is just a waste of time really and a waste of bait,’” Grubbs said.
Sawfish have a distinct snout that’s long, flat and edged with teeth — just like an actual saw. They belong to a group of fish called elasmobranchs, which also include sharks, skates and rays.
Smalltooth sawfish were “reasonably common” along the Florida coasts, Naylor said, before they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2003. Coastal development caused mangrove forests, and thus sawfish habitat, to decline.
Grubbs said witnessing a sawfish so far north of the Everglades may mean that as mangroves expand north, sawfish will too.
“We have stable mangroves now up in the panhandle,” Grubbs said, “which 20 years ago didn’t exist there.”
Historically, sawfish were viewed as trophy animals. Their signature saw-like snout would be cut off and used as a sort of souvenir.
Now, though, Naylor said most of Florida’s fishing community are respectful of endangered species and hold each other accountable to protect these animals. He said anglers deserve credit for the sawfish’s recovery.
“You don’t need enforcement,” he said. “It’s a cultural norm to protect the environment.”
Grubbs said he believes the sawfish in Cedar Key is a “positive story of recovery” and proof of the “Endangered Species Act working.”
People can help with the sawfish recovery effort by reporting any sawfish sightings or catches to FWC’s sawfish hotline.
If a sawfish is caught, Grubbs said the fishing line should be cut as close to the hook as possible — without harming the animal’s rostrum — and then released.