The smalltooth sawfish that was found off Fort Lauderdale recently was long – an estimated 16 feet – and deep under the surface, in 70 feet of water.
State sawfish expert Dr. Gregg Poulakis said it’s incredible that a charter dive outfit was able to locate the endangered fish not once but twice, and said it was unfortunate that scientists missed an opportunity to retrieve the carcass to study it.
His counterpart Dr. John Carlson with the NOAA Fisheries Service said it was the first report of a sawfish found offshore in 70 feet of water, and said that they never expected the animals – which are seen onshore or in shallow areas – to be discovered in deeper waters.
Poulakis, who is the head researcher for the species for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said its hotline got a call last Wednesday after divers with the American Dream II saw the sawfish tangled in some fishing gear off Fort Lauderdale.
“They said that it looked very fresh, and the eye was still clear, which is an indication that it was very fresh,” he said.
They called at 10 a.m., and Poulakis said he called them right back. They were already back in port, but indicated they would be heading back out there at about 1:30, said Poulakis, who wanted to get the carcass to learn about its death.
“Obviously it’s something that we don’t get the opportunity to do very often because they are endangered,” he said.
He said that since 2003 his group has done a dozen animal autopsies, and only three of those 12 were of adult sawfish.
Capt. Todd Rogers offered to help, and his boat, incredibly, was able to relocate the fish despite currents and scavenging, Poulakis said.
It was wrapped in a 1,000-pound fishing line, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Poulakis, who is based in Port Charlotte on the state’s west coast, said that he has a research permit to collect the fish but could not get over to meet with the American Dream II. Because the sawfish is a federally protected species, there’s no mechanism that the National Marine Fisheries Service (or NOAA Fisheries) has in place for him to work with volunteers in that situation, he said.
“I think this is something we can work to improve in the future so we don’t miss this opportunity again,” he said.
Carlson, who is a fishery biologist for the NOAA Fisheries Service, said that he and Poulakis hold the two permits issued by the agency to conduct research on smalltooth sawfish. But there are some people already authorized under those permits to retrieve dead animals, and in a situation where someone needs to be added, they contact the permits office in Silver Spring, Maryland and ask them, he said.
Carlson said that last year a sawfish was recovered around Hobe Sound, and as a FWC colleague of his was driving there, they were able to add him to the permit so he could collect it.
Several scenarios worked against them in the Fort Lauderdale case, Carlson said.
They never expected the animals to be discovered in deeper waters, nor a scuba diving operation to discover a smalltooth sawfish, he said.
“We’ve never had a report of a scuba diving operation or a charter operation reporting a dead sawfish to us before,” he said.
There was also only a small time frame to work with, Carlson said.
The carcass was left where it was.
“It’s just an unfortunate thing that happened to that fish, and it’s unfortunate that we were unable to examine it, scientifically examine it,” Poulakis said.
He said very little is known about the life history stages of adult sawfish – those that are 10 feet and above.
Carlson said it is hard to get a good estimate of the number of smalltooth sawfish out there, but based on historic records, it looks like their population has declined by up to 95 percent from what it once was.
At the turn of the century, there were smalltooth up to New Jersey and across the Gulf of Mexico, but now they are mostly found in Everglades National Park, southwest Florida, and the Florida Keys, he said.
All types of sawfish worldwide are listed as critically endangered. Their population decline appears to stem from indirect fishing mortality and habitat loss, Carlson said.
He said scientists have been finding out recently that smalltooth sawfish, if they live for a very long time, grow very rapidly in their first two years, and almost double in size their first year alive. That might be a response to reduce the risk of predators, including probably bull sharks, he said.
People can report a sawfish sighting or encounter in Florida by calling the FWC sawfish hotline at 941-255-7403 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, see here.