New strategies for saving the world’s sawfishes were the focus of a special session of the Sharks International conference held last month in Brazil. The event featured an expert panel reviewing a new sawfish report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group (SSG). The experts highlighted progress in sawfish research and conservation, in line with the SSG’s 2014 Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy, while amplifying alarm bells about the immediate risk of losing these iconic species in many places around the globe.
Sawfish were once found in the coastal waters and rivers of 78 tropical and subtropical countries. Today, all five species are classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Mortality from targeted and incidental fishing is the main cause. Sawfish rostra are valued as curios and for traditional medicine in many countries, while individual teeth are prized as spurs for cockfighting in much of South America and the Caribbean. Sawfish fins are exceptionally valuable for shark fin soup in Asia.
The SSG’s Global Sawfish Strategy aims to minimize threats through fisheries management, species protection, habitat conservation, trade limitation, and strategic research. To enable success, the group also set forth objectives for education, outreach, capacity building, responsible husbandry, communication, and fundraising. The update report is the product of an expert workshop held in November 2017. It includes the latest population status information and details significant advances over recent years, including the listing of all five sawfish species under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).
Because the U.S. has implemented relatively strong protections for sawfish and associated habitat, the SSG has characterized it (along with Australia) as a “lifeboat” for the species. The Caribbean is one of four regions designated as a “beacon of hope” because significant yet under-protected sawfish populations persist and are in need of urgent attention. The SSG has developed tailored, short-term sawfish conservation strategies for each of these regions, based on varying circumstances, and outlined them in the new report.
For the Caribbean, two coinciding 2017 policy developments complement the CMS listing and provide important opportunities for beneficial regional change: the listing of Smalltooth Sawfish on Annex II of the Protocol for Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife for the Wider Caribbean (SPAW Protocol) and an official recommendation for sawfish protection from the Shark Working Group of the Western Central Atlantic Fishery Commission (WECAFC).
To formulate the Caribbean strategy, experts examined countries’ association with these treaties, likelihood of still having sawfish, and policy track record. Successful efforts to stem Florida sawfish declines and secure an international trade ban position the U.S. well for a leadership role. The SSG is encouraging the U.S. to partner with the Netherlands and Bahamas to spearhead sawfish initiatives for the wider Caribbean. Cuba, Colombia, and Costa Rica were identified as key countries needing immediate research and/or protection. Other regional priority actions outlined by the SSG for the Caribbean include:
- § National sawfish protection promotion through SPAW, WECAFC, and CMS
- § Habitat conservation promotion through SPAW and UN projects
- § Largetooth Sawfish listing in SPAW Protocol Annex II
- § Expanded membership by key countries: SPAW Protocol, WECAFC, and CMS
- § Surveys for Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras
- § Assessment of regional fisheries’ interactions with and use of sawfish.
The other “beacons of hope” are the Amazon Delta, the Western Indian Ocean, and Australasia.
Panelists stressed that, despite some good progress, time is running out for many sawfish populations. The update document lays out next steps under the Strategy and meaningful actions that people all over the world, from all walks of life, can do to help turn the tide.
The SSG Global Sawfish Strategy Update, the full Strategy, and associated materials are available at www.iucnssg.org.
Sonja Fordham serves as Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group. She is the President of Shark Advocates International, a project of The Ocean Foundation dedicated to advancing science-based conservation policies for sharks and rays.