I have written about how the sharks are, in general, endangered. Today, however, I want to get particular and discuss one big fish, not exactly a shark, but a close relative of the sharks: The sawfish.
Most people don’t think about the sawfish very much, but I have discovered that once a person starts exploring information about the sawfish, it becomes difficult to stop thinking about them. I have taken to having entire telephone conversations in which I talk about nothing but how remarkable the sawfish is, and the other person really doesn’t know what to say.
The sawfish are related to sharks and rays, but they have their own order within the class of the cartilaginous fishes – the Pristiformes. That’s a distinction on the level of the separation between mammals that give birth to babies and mammals that still lay eggs.
Sawfish are easy to identify by their rostrum, a long blade that comes out of the front of their skulls, which looks something like a chainsaw blade, except that the blades of the saw come out as straight spikes in case of sawfish. Sawfish use their rostrum to slash through the water, killing or stunning smaller fish that they they then eat. The rostrum also is a sensory organ that the sawfish can use to sense animals like crabs that are hiding beneath the mud on the seafloor.
Sawfish are not just marine fish. They also go into rivers and lakes. In fact, sawfish were once common in the river systems of the American Southeast, all the way from Texas up to southern New Jersey.
No more. All around the world, sawfish are critically endangered. In the Mediterranean Sea and the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, sawfish are completely gone. In the Pacific and Indian oceans, sawfish are barely holding on. In the Western Atlantic, there still are some sawfish, but their numbers have been reduced by 95 percent. This map, from the Draft Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Plan developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration one and a half years ago, shows where the sawfish used to be along the coast of what is now the United States, and the tiny areas in which they now rarely sighted off the coast of Florida.
What we have lost is gigantic – literally. Sawfish used to be among the giants of the oceans, growing to lengths greater than that of a great white shark. I won’t show the photograph here, as it’s from a commercial catalog of copyrighted material, but an article by Science News on sawfish has a photograph from the 1930s of a sawfish over 30 feet long after it was hauled in by a self-styled “adventurer”.
These days, on the rare occasion that a sawfish is sighted, it is almost always under ten feet long. Sawfish are slow to mature and reproduce, so the giants are gone.
What can be done? Long line fishing catches sawfish, who often have their fins hacked off to be eaten as a delicacy, with the rest of the fish thrown back into the water as “bycatch”. Stopping long line fishing would go a long way to enabling sawfish populations to recover. Stopping water pollution in rivers as well as in the ocean would also help a great deal, as sawfish have a difficult time surviving in polluted waters. Finally, it’s important to preserve the waters where sawfish still gather to feed and breed.
It used to be that the island of Bimini in the Bahamas supplied such habitat, in a lagoon protected by mangrove forests. However, as documented by the Save the Bahamas Coalition, the sawfish habitat was destroyed, with the mangroves all cut down and the lagoon dredged in order to prepare for the construction of the Bimini Bay Resort & Casino. Some of the impact of the Bimini Bay Resort’s construction is shown in the following video:
The Bimini Bay Resort and Casino isn’t just bad for the sawfish, and the other marine life of Bimini. It’s a profoundly idiotic project on a human level as well. Bimini is an extremely low-lying island, and with the protective mangroves gone, the Bimini Bay Resort and Casino could be swept away by the first significant hurricane to come along. Sea level rise with global warming will also threaten the development before long.
The tragedy of the Bimini Bay Resort brings one clear thought to my mind: Save the sawfish, and we may just end up saving ourselves too. When we work to protect the sawfish, we will be working to protect other forms of marine life too. Ultimately, human civilization depends on that life.
I am putting together a page of resources related to the sawfish, in the hopes it will help bring the plight of these remarkable fish to the awareness of a wider range of people.
I’ll also repeat the message of the Save the Bahamas coalition: Boycott the Hilton Hotels Corporation. They’re the ones that are building the Bimini Bay Resort and Casino. The Hilton Hotel brands are:
Conrad Hotels and Resorts
Hilton Garden Inn
Hilton Grand Vacations Club
Daily Activism: Send a message that you will not tolerate corporations that profit from the destruction of marine ecosystems. Do not stay at any hotel connected to the above Hilton hotel brands, and tell your friends and family about this issue so that they can avoid the Hilton Hotel chains too.
For more information and activist opportunities to help the people and wildlife of Bimini:
Mangrove Action Bimini Letter Writing Campaign
Petition to save the mangroves at Bimini
Ocean Futures on Bimini