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Date of Issue: December 03, 2008


Sawfish critical habit protection sought for south Southwest Florida

Smalltooth sawfish were once common in bay waters off Anna Maria Island. Islander Photo: Courtesy Mote Marine Laboratory.

A new, protected home for the endangered smalltooth sawfish has been proposed by federal officials to our south.

Sawfish, Pristis pectinata, are about as distinctive as the most distinctive thing you can imagine. Think a mix of a shark, a ray and a cross-cut saw and you get a good picture of the creatures. The fish are yellowish in color, and have a saw for a snout that can total about a quarter of the beast’s overall length. Since sawfish commonly grow to 18 feet in length and 25-footers have been spotted, we’re talking about a big fish and a formidable weapon.

The saw blade of the fish is used for feeding. Sawfish charge into a school of fish and thresh the water with the blade, then calmly back through the fish detritus and suck down the chum. Sawfish teeth are mainly used to grind up the chowder, and any leftover crumbs in the saw itself are rubbed on the bay bottom, then scarfed down.

      Sawfish have been around for about 100 million years, but those fish are thought to be distant cousins to the sawfish of today, which first appeared some 56 million years ago.

Sawfish were once found throughout southern coastal areas of the United States, as well as most of the warm oceans on the planet. Habitat loss due to human construction, plus overfishing, created the “endangered” aspect of the species. The sawfish was also overharvested for its saw, popular in the curio trade. Entanglement in fishing gear or nets also added to the fish’s death knell.

Florida is now about the only place sawfish call home, mostly in Southwest Florida.

The region from Charlotte Harbor south to Florida Bay is under review by officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service for designation as a critical habitat for sawfish. More than 840,000 acres of coastal waters would receive the critical designation if approved by a slew of federal, state, regional and local agencies. The habitat moniker means any development impacting sawfish territory would be scrutinized by federal agencies, specifically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and/or the Federal Highway Administration, before approval.

NMFS officials have identified activities that would require “consultation” — a sit-down with federal authorities at a cost of $1,600 to $2,000, depending on what type or scope of development is requested — due to potential impacts on sawfish. Those impacts include construction of docks, piers, boat ramps, dredging, shoreline stabilization and the like; water-control structure repair and replacement; and road/bridge expansion, repair and removal.

“We do not predict that the  proposed designation will result in an increase in the number of consultations that would be required due solely to the presence of the species,” NMFS folks said. They estimate 76 consultations due to the proposed  designation in the Charlotte Harbor  Estuary area in the next 10 years, and eight in the Ten Thousand Islands area.

 

Happy sawfish habitat includes …

Sawfish, despite their hefty adult size, are very much shallow-water denizens. Saws are rarely found in water much deeper than 30 feet, making bays a beautiful place for them to live, feed and make little sawfish.

Scientists are quick to point out they don’t know a lot about the weird-looking fish. They believe they are somewhat territorial, but admit that some adults appear to range out of any usual estuarine haunts.

Researchers believe that juvenile fish pretty much stick to a certain area. They will cruise through seagrass beds to feed, then hunker down near red mangrove islands both for protection and because the swash channels there afford more water at low tides. Rivers are nice, too, but only for visits.

Charlotte Harbor and the Ten Thousand Island areas of Southwest Florida afford those criteria for sawfish. “Protecting the species’ juvenile nursery areas is the key conservation objective for the species,” researchers said.

 

Politics propel rule

The proposed rule comes in response to a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity against the Bush administration for its delay in protecting habitat for several marine species at risk of extinction, the center said. “The Endangered Species Act requires critical habitat designation for species as soon as they are listed under the act, but in practice such protection rarely occurred under the Bush administration without litigation,” center officials said.

 

Fast growers, long livers

Scientists have determined sawfish are about 31 inches in length at birth, and can regularly grow to 18 feet. The “little” guys and girls grow fast: up to another 33 inches in the first year, up an additional 27 inches at age 2.

It is estimated by some scientists that sawfish can live up to 60 years.

Listed as endangered in 2003, the smalltooth sawfish population has declined by 95 percent since records were first kept.

 

Comment?

Public comment is sought on the sawfish habitat designation. Include the Regulatory Information  Number (RIN) 0648–AV74, and send by mail to: Assistant Regional  Administrator, Protected Resources Division, NMFS, Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Ave. S., St. Petersburg FL 33701; fax to 727–824–5309; or e-mail to www.regulations.gov by clicking on ‘‘Search for Dockets’’ at the top of the  screen, then entering the RIN in the  ‘‘RIN” field and click “Submit” tab.

 

Sandscript factoid

Sawfish were occasionally spotted in waters off Anna Maria Island up to the 1960s, and are still occasionally seen or caught. Tampa Bay and Palma Sola Bay were prime sawfish haunts in the old days.

In fact, avid fishers would sport a saw or two hanging in their garage or carport as a prize from catching one of the big fish.

No word on how they taste but, as with sharks or rays, they probably would be pretty tasty. Like chicken.

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