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‘Monsters’ no more: Sawfish endangered

By Staff | Oct 31, 2009

Despite its awkward, somewhat fearsome appearance, the smalltooth sawfish is facing a delicate, uphill battle.
The sawfish population has dwindled over the years nearly to the point of extinction.
Reliable data on the fish is sparse. Scientists who have been studying the creature have no true historic sense of their population, their mating habits, or migratory patterns.
Even now, as it’s being protected by the Endangered Species Act, so little is known about the creature that since being placed on the endangered species list in 2003, it’s unknown what true effect this level of protection has had on its population.
The only thing scientists, government agencies, and enthusiasts know for certain is the smalltooth sawfish is in serious trouble. And, at best, only 10 percent of the entire population is still alive.
“Unfortunately, sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone,” said George Burgess, a professor at the University of Florida, and curator of the national sawfish database. “These are animals that disappeared basically under the radar. By the time we figured it out, they were almost gone.”
The database that Burgess and his team of UF scientists are charged with represents the breadth of information available on the elusive fish.
It’s culled from similar databases from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, MOTE Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, and several individual citizens who were simply wild about sawfish.
While some of the information does date back several hundred years (there’s a report from the early 1700s of sawfish sightings is New York, according to Burgess), the only consistent data goes back a decade, at best.
With only 10 or so years of information, scientists like Burgess and his crew are scrambling to learn as much as they can, as quickly as they can, and protect the species in the process.
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In addition to being placed on the endangered species list, the smalltooth sawfish now has a “recovery team” looking out for its well being.
The team was responsible for coming up with plan to save the fish. Part of the plan, or maybe the focus of the plan depending on how you look at it, is new regulation that protects the sawtooth fish’s habitat.
As far as it’s known, the fish now only exists in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and the Charlotte Harbour Estuary, part of which lies within the waterways of Cape Coral. These areas are now labeled as “critical habitats.”
“They are right smack in the middle of our world,” George Burgess said. “And we’re all going to have to make compromises to get them back to former levels of abundance.”
Those compromises could fall squarely on the shoulders of residential and commercial builders, but the Army Corp of Engineers says the new habitat designations will not mean much to anyone who wants to construct a new dock or seawall.
The city of Cape Coral has a “blanket permit” to approve requests for marine contractors. Depending on the project, contractors might have to jump through additional hoops from the Corp of Engineers, especially if their project comes into direct contact with red mangroves, a favorite hangout for smalltooth sawfish.
“For single-family homes that are looking to build docks, if they adhere to our current guidelines, there won’t be much of a change,” said Tunis McElwain, from Army Corps’ Regulatory office in Fort Myers. “The projects that will see changes are projects with adverse modifications to red mangroves.”
The Army Corp of Engineers, along with members of the Sawtooth Recover Team plan to lay out all the specifics of these new rules for the permitting process during a special workshop Nov. 13 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Fort Myers.
The construction industry in Cape Coral is aware of these new processes, but aren’t overly worried, according to Patti Schnell, executive director of the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association. Schnell said she would be attending the workshop.
“Early indications are showing we should be very minimally impacted,” Schnell said. “Seawalls are our main concern, but we don’t see any concern for docks … we’re certainly keeping an eye on it.”

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With the recovery plan in place, the construction industry for the moment comfortable, the focus now is to see the smalltooth sawfish population grow, and hopefully by leaps and bounds.
The trick, of course, is patience.
Shelley Norton, from the National Marine Fisheries Services, thinks it will take at least a century before the fish can be taken off the endangered species list.
“The recovery plan lays out actions that I believe we need in order to monitor and save the population,” she said. “There’s so few of them, but we’re hopeful. We’re cautiously optimistic.”
The key to their longevity, according to George Burgess, is to get them out of Florida waters and into other parts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
While Burgess admitted that, inevitably, some species are destined to disappear off the face of the earth, the smalltooth sawfish can be saved.
The trick is a combination of efforts, from government, to scientists and universities, all the way to private citizens.
Until that level of cooperation is reached, the smalltooth sawfish will remain cautiously balanced on the edge of extinction.
“Even though we’ve been at it for 15 years, it’s only been endangered for less than a decade,” George Burgess said. “It’s still got a long way to go … but it’s not going to happen fast.”

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Burgess and his crew from the University of Florida are urging people from all walks of life to become involved in helping the smalltooth sawfish. They hope that any sightings or interaction with the fish are reported to them via the internet. For those that wish to log their sightings with the National Sawfish Encounter Databse, simply follow this link: www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/sawfish/form.html

George Burgess can be reached by phone at (352) 392-2360, or by email at gburgess@flmnh.ufl.edu
The upcoming Smalltooth Sawfish workshop is Nov. 16, 1 – 5 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Fort Myers. For more information contact Shelley Norton at (727) 824-5312.