April 1, 2018, will mark a milestone for smalltooth sawfish of the United States. Fifteen years ago, the species was listed as an endangered species because scientists determined that the population was at risk of extinction. The listing was the result of information that indicated the U.S. population of smalltooth sawfish had dramatically declined due to overfishing, habitat loss, and the species’ limited reproductive potential. And on April 1, 2003, the smalltooth sawfish became the first fully-marine fish and first elasmobranch (sharks, skates, and rays) protected by U.S. Endangered Species Act.
After the listing, NOAA Fisheries convened the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Team to develop a plan to recover the U.S. smalltooth sawfish population. Recovery plans serve as road maps for species recovery—they lay out where we need to go and how best to get there. 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. Once the plan was published NOAA Fisheries convened a team to begin implementing the Recovery Plan with the ultimate goal of protecting and expanding the remaining sawfish population in the U.S. (Sawfish News author Tonya Wiley is an appointed member of the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Implementation Team)
Guidance for recreational anglers to follow to release any sawfish caught while fishing. Remember, due to their protected status it is illegal to target, harm, harass, or handle sawfish in any way. Any sawfish caught while fishing must be released as quickly as possible. When handling and releasing a sawfish, leave it in the water at all times. Do not lift it out of the water on to your boat or a pier, and do not drag it on shore. Credit Tonya Wiley, Havenworth Coastal Conservation
At the time of the listing in 2003 scientists knew very little about the biology, ecology, and population dynamics of smalltooth sawfish. The Recovery Plan identified actions and research goals aimed at gaining a better understanding of the species and the population. And over the last 15 years, scientists from multiple agencies, universities, and organizations have collaborated to research the smalltooth sawfish population in the United States. We now know more about their size and age at maturity, the number of young they give birth to, the food they eat, their large- and small-scale movement patterns and habitat use, and their response to a variety of stressors. These research results greatly improved our understanding of the species and made it clear that we needed to update the Recovery Plan. The team began the revision in 2016, and the new plan will update the state of knowledge of the species, identify our next research goals, and prioritize the actions needed to reach recovery as quickly as possible.
Credit Tonya Wiley, Havenworth Coastal Conservation
The ultimate goal of the Endangered Species Act is to conserve listed species to the point they are recovered and no longer need the protections afforded by the Act. Developing recovery and implementation teams is just one tool used in the conservation of listed (threatened or endangered) species. The sawfish team has been an excellent example of collaboration and dedication by multiple partners for the good of the species, and the sawfish population is already showing some positive signs of recovery. Continued proper management and protections of the species and its habitats will ensure that sawfish numbers increase and their range expands.
One of the best methods of monitoring the population and tracking recovery progress is the use of public sawfish encounters. If you catch or see a sawfish please share the information with scientists by calling 1-844-4-SAWFISH (1-844-472-9347) or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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