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Resident spots rare smalltooth sawfish in Cape Coral canal

By Staff | Feb 2, 2011

Jan Smith was leaning over the pool railing and looking into the shallow water of the Malaga Canal when she saw what she believed, at first glance, was a palm frond.
But when the frond began to move and shake she decided it was something else entirely.
“It was very deceiving at first,” she said.
Smith was watching a roughly 5-foot-long smalltooth sawfish, one of the most endangered species in not only Lee County waters, but the entire United States.
Its habitat was believed to have once stretched as far north as New York, but as of 2003, the fish is only known to exist in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and the Charlotte Harbour Estuary, part of which lies within the waterways of Cape Coral.
Reliable data on the animal is so sparse that scientists who have been studying the creature really have no true sense of their population, their mating habits or migratory patterns.
That’s why Smith’s sighting is so important.
“I thought it was a shark, but I could see the saw-bill,” she added.
Smith also claims she and a number of witnesses saw the animal giving birth.
“I could see the back half … there was a puff of dirt, then the dirt would settle, then we would see the baby swim away,” Smith said.
John Waters, from the University of Florida, is one of the scientists that maintains the National Sawfish Database.
The database culls information from firsthand sightings from around the animal’s perceived habitat to attempt to get a clearer understanding of the animal.
If the smalltooth sawfish was giving birth, then Smith and the other onlookers saw what Water’s said was a rare, if not impossible, opportunity. Waters said there as few as 10,000 of the animals left on earth.
“To see a smalltooth sawfish is one in a million,” Waters said. “But to see one giving birth, that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Gregg Poulakis, a research scientist with the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the animal was likely not giving birth, as its size indicated that it was still a juvenile.
Poulakis said a female smalltooth sawfish is considered mature when it reaches roughly 10 feet in length.
The small fish attached to the sawtooth were likely remoras, Poulakis said, which is a type of suckerfish.
He said the animal was likely feeding in the canal, but like Waters, said that witnessing a smalltooth sawfish giving birth is beyond rare.
“Nobody I know has ever seen it,” Poulakis said.
Poulakis is asking anyone who has seen a smalltooth sawfish to contact the FWC Hotline at 941-255-7403.