Smalltooth Sawfish

Population Down as Much as 99 Percent

Scientific name: Pristis pectinata

Smalltooth sawfish in the US once ranged in shallow waters from Texas to North Carolina. Today, this species is found regularly only in a few protected areas of the Florida Keys and Everglades. Scientists have concluded that this sawfish population has declined by as much as 99 percent and is in danger of extinction.

Sawfish, among the most endangered fish in the world, are highly modified rays that evolved from ancient sharks over many millions of years. Six species including the smalltooth are recognized around the world; individuals range in size from two to 20 feet and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. They are easily recognized by the tooth-studded, blade-like snout ("saw") that scientists believe they use to find and disable prey. Like most sharks, sawfish grow slowly, mature late, and bear few young. This makes them exceptionally vulnerable to a variety of threats, particularly overfishing. All species are classified by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as critically endangered.

The toothy snouts of sawfish snag easily in fishing nets and lines. Sawfish caught unintentionaly in fisheries (known as "bycatch") is the main cause of population declines. Sawfish "saws" are sold as curios around the world; their fins are prized for shark fin soup. Degradation of nearshore areas, particularly mangrove habitat, also poses a threat to sawfish recovery.

The US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed US smalltooth sawfish as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2003. The smalltooth sawfish was the first US marine fish to be listed under the ESA. A NMFS Recovery Plan for the species was finalized in January 2009.

Smalltooth sawfish were protected under the US Endangered Species Act in 2003, as a result of an Ocean Conservancy petition. This listing, the first of its kind for a marine fish of U.S. waters, was finalized in 2003 and led to the development of a sawfish recovery plan. Funding and other attention to conservation actions contained in this plan are now essential for the survival of sawfish. What is sobering is that recovery even under the best conditions is estimated to take 100 years.

The Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Plan identifies a variety of actions, from research to fishing restrictions, needed to recover US sawfish over 100 years. In particular, the plan highlights the importance of reducing smalltooth sawfish bycatch in a number of fisheries. As part of the ESA process, NMFS is designating "critical habitat", nearshore areas including red mangrove stands that are essential to juvenile sawfish. Development or dredging projects proposed in these areas will receive special federal scrutiny to ensure minimal impact on sawfish recovery.

In order limit the threat to sawfish from trade, the US, with the support of conservation groups, has fought to list sawfish under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The US first proposed listing sawfish under CITES in 1997; their efforts finally paid off in 2007 with a ban on international trade in all but one species of sawfish.

What Ocean Conservancy Is Doing to Help

For more than a decade, Ocean Conservancy has been publicizing the plight of sawfish and building the public, scientific, and political support necessary to bring them back from the brink of extinction. In 1999, Ocean Conservancy filed the petition that led to the smalltooth sawfish listing under the ESA. Ocean Conservancy staff served on the team that drafted the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Plan and was a major proponent for the listing of sawfish under CITES.

What You Can Do to Help

  • Join Ocean Conservancy's online commmunity to learn more and stay up-to-date on ocean issues.
  • Increased public awareness of the plight of the sawfish is essential for their survival. You can help by contacting your Congressional representative and voicing your support for additional funding needed to implement the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Plan.
  • If you see a sawfish, report it to the Sawfish Encounter Database by visiting or calling (352) 392-2360.
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