Categories: Saltwater

Smalltooth Sawfish Endangered In the Gulf

The population of smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) in the United States experienced a dramatic decline during the 20th century caused by overfishing, habitat loss, and limited reproductive potential. Given the decline in the population of US sawfish, in 1999 The Ocean Conservancy (then the Center for Marine Conservation) petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) requesting the North American population of smalltooth sawfish be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA). On March 10, 2000 NMFS determined the petition presented substantial information indicating listing may be warranted for smalltooth sawfish and initiated a status review for the species, gathering all known public, commercial, and scientific data to consider during the status review process. The status review was completed in 2000 and determined that the population of smalltooth sawfish in US waters was in danger of extinction throughout its range. As a result, NMFS proposed to list the species under the ESA and solicited public comment, then on April 1, 2003 listed the US population of smalltooth sawfish as an endangered species under the ESA.

Historically sawfish were greatly persecuted in the Gulf of Mexico.

The ultimate goal of the Endangered Species Act listing is to recovery the population to the point that it no longer needs the protections of the ESA. Therefore, after the listing, NMFS convened the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Team to develop a plan to recover the US smalltooth sawfish population. The team worked several years to build additional knowledge of the species and to identify the most severe threats to the population. The recovery plan was published in 2009 and recommends specific steps to recover the population, focusing on (1) educating the public to minimize human interactions with sawfish and any associated injury and mortality, (2) protecting and/or restoring important sawfish habitats, and (3) ensuring sawfish abundance and distribution increase. After the plan was published NMFS assembled the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Implementation Team, a multi-institutional panel of experts working to implement the recovery plan—protecting the remaining sawfish population in the US while rebuilding the population. (Sawfish News author Tonya Wiley is an appointed member of the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Implementation Team)

Juvenile smalltooth sawfish, like many other marine species, use specific habitats commonly referred to as nurseries and the recovery plan states that protecting nurseries is important to the recovery of the species. In September 2009, NMFS designated two areas as Critical Habitat for juvenile sawfish: the Charlotte Harbor Estuary Unit (~ 221,459 acres) and the Ten Thousand Islands/Everglades Unit (~ 619,013 acres). Two specific habitat features within these areas are essential to the survival and recovery of smalltooth sawfish: (1) red mangroves and (2) shallow euryhaline inshore habitats with water depths less than 3 feet at mean lower low water. These essential features provide safe habitat for juvenile sawfish to use as nurseries, protecting small sawfish from predators and providing ample food for quick, early growth.

Under the ESA, NMFS is required to periodically re-examine the listing classification of all threatened or endangered species to ensure accuracy. Similar to the initial status review, these periodic reviews (called 5-year reviews) require NMFS to collect and consider all available public, scientific, and commercial information on the listed species. The reviews consider information from the public, recovery plans, critical habitat designations, previous 5-year reviews, and all scientific literature, reports, and presentations. Since the ESA listing, two 5-year

reviews have been published in 2010 and 2018, and both determined smalltooth sawfish remains in danger of extinction throughout its range and continues to meet the ESA definition of endangered. For more information on sawfish click here.

Tonya Wiley

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