Chad Ponce, a 38-year old commercial fisherman, is facing 2 years probation, 80 hours of community service and a $2,000 fine for killing an endangered smalltooth sawfish. A judge determined this sentence on December 19, 2019, after a joint investigation by NOAA Fisheries and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) confirmed Ponce used a power saw to cut the rostrum (saw or bill) off of the live fish before discarding its body back into the ocean.
The St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office and FWC received a tip reporting the capture and gross mishandling of a large (12-14 foot) smalltooth sawfish off the coast of Ponte Vedra, Florida, on July 18, 2018. The sawfish was incidentally caught in one of Ponce’s commercial shrimp trawl nets earlier that day.
Upon retrieval of the net Ponce, captain of the Triton II, first attempted to use a hacksaw on the rostrum, but witnesses report he tossed that saw into the ocean when it didn’t work. Ponce then used a power saw to cut the rostrum off the live animal. Another fisherman in a vessel adjacent to the trawler witnessed the incident and reported it to FWC’s Report Sawfish for Science Hotline.
This hotline is typically used to document sightings and incidental captures by recreational anglers of sawfish for the purpose of monitoring the population. The report was passed on to NOAA, which oversees the conservation of species listed under the Endangered Species Act.
NOAA and FWC opened an investigation into the alleged violation. FWC sent an officer offshore to the location of the Triton II on the day of the report. DNA evidence connecting Ponce to the crime was gathered in the course of the investigation.
Ponce initially denied the wrong-doing but then pleaded guilty to the charges of killing an endangered species on Friday, November 1, 2019. The maximum penalty for killing an endangered species is one year in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Sawfish primarily use their rostrum for sensing and hunting prey. Not having a rostrum forces them to scavenge for opportunistic food sources instead, generally resulting in starvation.
The smalltooth sawfish is one of five sawfish species worldwide and the only one still found in U.S. waters. All five species of sawfishes are in danger of extinction and listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, as well as some international authorities. The smalltooth sawfish was once found in coastal waters from North Carolina to Texas, though it is now generally only found in the southern half of Florida.
Two primary threats led to the decline of sawfish in the United States: bycatch mortality in fisheries (especially net fisheries such as trawls and gillnets) and habitat loss. While conservation measures are in place to protect them, smalltooth sawfish are still impacted by human activities.
The continued existence and recovery of this species is dependent on all of us protecting sawfish habitats, reporting any encounters, and safely releasing incidentally caught sawfish. NOAA has guidance to aid in these endeavors and works with a variety of partners to conserve sawfish. Become involved and help save sawfish! Report encounters to (844) 4SAWFISH.