During a field course about sharks, scientists wanted to capture a juvenile for students to examine. So, last month, from a boat off the coast of Cedar Key, Florida, they cast a line.
When it snagged something large, Dean Grubbs, a marine ecologist at Florida State University who was co-teaching the class, thought they’d found a nurse shark.
But before long, the animal jerked against the fishing line, and Grubbs suspected the group was about to see something much stronger and rarer—a critically endangered smalltooth sawfish. This eerie, boneless creature looks like a shark with a chainsaw for a nose, called a rostrum.
“I was pretty sure this was a sawfish, but I remained stone-faced because I didn’t want to disappoint the students if I was wrong,” Grubbs says in a statement. “I saw the tail before the rostrum, so I lost my calm at that point and screamed ‘Sawfish! It’s a sawfish!’”
Researchers caught and tagged a 13-ft sawfish last month. It's the furthest north a sawfish has been tagged in decades. Sawfish were the first native marine fish listed under the endangered species act, and the sighting is a sign that they're recovering. https://t.co/d6K5iT4J8q pic.twitter.com/EIQdgkFn76— Florida Museum (@FloridaMuseum) July 10, 2023
A century ago, such a find would have hardly been shocking. Smalltooth sawfish were common across Florida waters and could even be sighted as far as Texas or North Carolina. Young sawfish sheltered in spindly mangrove roots. But throughout the 1900s, coastal development destroyed mangrove forests along Florida’s shore. Hunters captured the animals and sold their toothy snouts, and sawfish became entangled in fishing nets. Juveniles take several years to reach reproductive maturity, making it even more difficult for their numbers to recover. By the end of the century, their population had crashed by 90 percent.
Now, sightings of sawfish are few and far between. Before Grubbs’ find, no one had tagged a sawfish in Cedar Key for three to four decades.
Having confirmed the identity of the massive creature, Grubbs and his students restrained the animal, which measured 13 feet long. Another team member went back to shore to get a tagging device, since “no one had imagined they’d need” one, with sawfish being so rare in the region, per the statement.
Scientists tagged and released the fish, which despite its shark-like appearance, is actually a type of ray. Now, they’ll follow its movements for up to ten years, collecting data that’s crucial to conservation and recovery efforts for the species.
“As far as I know, there has never been a sawfish tagged as far north as this one,” Grubbs tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou.
Coupled with other recent developments, this find has raised scientists’ hopes for sawfish recovery. Earlier this year, for example, biologists tagged three juvenile sawfish in Tampa Bay, south of Cedar Key. Prior to these finds, only two individuals had been tagged in the area since efforts began five years ago, wrote Jack Prator for the Tampa Bay Times in June.
All three of the young sawfish were found near mangroves in about six inches of water, suggesting this spot was their nursery, says sawfish researcher Tonya Wiley, who tagged the creatures, to the Tampa Bay Times. The area, called Rattlesnake Key, is on its way to becoming a state park.
And in recent decades, the creatures have benefited from a handful of conservation measures—in 1992, smalltooth sawfish earned protections in Florida. Three years later, the state banned gill nets, which were notorious for snaring the jagged rostroms of juvenile sawfish. And in 2003, the species was listed federally as endangered, securing additional safeguards for the creatures.
The recent Cedar Key tagging brings another piece of good news—the animal was a female, and it had mating scars on its sides and fins, suggesting it was breeding.
Taken together, these advances suggest that sawfish are showing “positive signs of a slow recovery,” as Grubbs tells Newsweek.
“What’s remarkable to me is that they’re creeping back into exactly the previous habitats and range from which they’ve been extirpated,” Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s shark research program, says in the statement. “It’s as if they have a deeply embedded knowledge of where to go.”