US government heads toward protection of rare shark-like ray
Washington, DC. (5.7.2010). Shark Advocates International is applauding today's proposal from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list largetooth sawfish (Pristis perotteti) under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), thereby setting the stage for improved protection for the species in the US and throughout its range. Largetooth sawfish occur in warm, coastal waters and rivers in Mexico, Central and South America, as well as West Africa. In the US, the species has been confirmed in the Gulf of Mexico, primarily off Texas, but not since the 1960s.
"Sawfish are among the most endangered fish in the world," said Shark Advocates International President, Sonja Fordham. "By proposing largetooth sawfish for listing under the Endangered Species Act, the US government is taking an important step toward preventing extinction of this remarkable animal and raising awareness of the plight of all sawfish species."
Sawfish are shark-like rays characterized by long, tooth-studded snouts. Individuals range in size from 2 to 20 feet and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Like most sharks and rays, sawfish are exceptionally vulnerable to overexploitation due to their slow growth, late maturity, and small number of young. All seven species worldwide are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Critically Endangered. The only other sawfish species native to the US, smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), was listed under the ESA in 2003.
The biggest threats to sawfish are incidental take (or "bycatch") in fishing gear, particularly shrimp trawls, and degradation of nearshore habitats. Sawfish "saws" are sold as curios; their fins are prized for shark fin soup. In 2007, a US proposal led to the listing of all sawfish species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES); international trade is essentially banned for all but one species (freshwater sawfish, Pristis microdon).
If the proposal to list largetooth sawfish under the ESA is finalized, the US will grant the species strong federal protections and encourage other range countries to take similar steps. NMFS may also develop a recovery plan for the species, but is unlikely to designate largetooth sawfish "critical habitat" because US waters are thought to represent the fringe of the species' range.
Shark Advocates International supports the proposal to list largetooth sawfish under the ESA as well as:
- National protection for all species of sawfish in all countries within their ranges
- Greater observer coverage in shrimp fisheries of the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico
- Fishing closures for areas found to be hotspots for sawfish bycatch
- Up-listing of freshwater sawfish from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES, and
- Priority for sawfish research and conservation projects
Notes to Editors: SAI President, Sonja Fordham, co-authored the petition that led to the 2003 listing of smalltooth sawfish under the ESA. She has since served on the US advisory panel charged with developing and implementing a smalltooth sawfish recovery plan. Ms. Fordham was a leading proponent of the largetooth sawfish protection measures adopted by the state of Texas and the listing of all sawfish species under CITES.
Shark Advocates International (SAI) is a project of The Ocean Foundation established to provide leadership in advancing sound policies for sharks and rays. Based on nearly 20 years of shark conservation achievement, SAI works to secure science-based limits on shark fishing and trade, protection for endangered species, and stronger bans on shark finning.