News Release

Shark specialists prioritize recovery of world’s largest, most threatened rays

05 June 2014
Largetooth Sawfish (Pristis pristis) in an aquarium
Photo: David Wackenfelt

The Shark Specialist Group (SSG) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has released a global strategy to prevent extinction and promote recovery of sawfishes, which have been devastated worldwide by overfishing and habitat loss. The strategy is being launched at the Sharks International conference in Durban and coincides with announcements that two West Africa countries -- Guinea and Guinea Bissau -- are proposing the listing of sawfishes under the Convention on Migratory Species in November, which could significantly boost protections.

“The sawfishes, revered for millennia by coastal cultures around the world, now face greater extinction risk than any other family of marine fish,” said strategy co-author, Dr. Nick Dulvy, who serves as IUCN SSG Co-Chair and Canada Research Chair at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “With this comprehensive strategy, we aim to reignite sawfish reverence and spark conservation action in time to bring these iconic species back from the brink.”

Sawfish -- warm water, shark-like rays characterized by long, toothed snouts (“rostra”) -- are the largest of the rays, reaching over seven meters in length. Once found in the coastal waters and rivers of more than 90 tropical and subtropical countries, all five species are today classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. Mortality from targeted and incidental fishing is the main threat to sawfish. Their rostra, which they use to detect and wound prey, are easily entangled in many types of fishing gear, particularly trawls and gillnets. The destruction of key habitats, such as mangroves, also poses a threat to sawfish survival.

Colin Simpfendorfer tagging Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata) November 2006, Florida Bay, Everglades National Park. Photo: Colin Simpfendorfer“Although these species are perilously close to extinction in many regions, there are some fairly simple ways to help populations recover. For example, we know that sawfish can actually survive capture quite well if handled properly, and hence, basic education of commercial, subsistence, and recreational fishers is central to our conservation strategy,” said Dr. Colin Simpfendorfer, IUCN SSG Co-Chair, Professor of Environmental Science at James Cook University in Queensland, who led the development of the US recovery plan that has improved the status of Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata) in Florida.

To compliment an existing ban on commercial international sawfish trade, the Strategy calls for national and regional actions to prohibit intentional killing of sawfish, minimize mortality of accidental catches, protect sawfish habitats, Sawfishes are revered in the Bijagos archipelago, Guinea Bissau. Photo: Ruth Leeneyand ensure effective enforcement of such safeguards. The document also lays out actions associated with effective communications, capacity building, strategic research, and responsible husbandry, as well as fundraising to ensure implementation.

“Over the last decade, sawfish conservation policies have greatly improved in several countries and globally, but much more action is urgently needed to safeguard these magnificent animals,” said Sonja Fordham, IUCN SSG Deputy Chair and President of Washington, DC-based Shark Advocates International, a project of The Ocean Foundation. “We are extremely pleased that Guinea Bissau and Guinea will propose sawfish for listing under the Convention on Migratory Species, as this treaty offers an excellent framework for prompting national protection in many priority sawfish range states and for implementing our Sawfish entanglement in fishing line. Photo: D Morganglobal strategy on a regional basis.”

The Strategy is the result of a 2012 SSG workshop where the world’s sawfish experts developed a global sawfish conservation vision, goals, and prioritized actions. The document also includes information on sawfish biology, distribution, cultural value, history of exploitation, current threats, regional status accounts, and conservation policies compiled by leading authorities.

For more information, please contact:

Dr Nick Dulvy, Co-chair IUCN SSC Shark Specialist Group

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