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Rescued Smalltooth Sawfish Dies After Receiving Critical Rehabilitative Care

May 03, 2024

Rescue attempt provides valuable information for next time.

Sawfish rescue, Florida Keys, Photo Credit: Mote Marine Lab Sawfish rescue Florida Keys, Photo Credit: Mote Marine Lab

After more than 20 days of rehabilitative care at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, the first rescued smalltooth sawfish has died. The animal was rescued off Cudjoe Key on April 5. It was transported to a Mote quarantine facility in Sarasota that allowed for extensive rehabilitation treatment.

While in care, veterinarians from Mote and other partner agencies fed the sick sawfish and provided vitamins and medicines. They monitored the animal’s behavior and overall body condition. Unfortunately, after more than 20 days of receiving round-the-clock care, the animal succumbed to its illness and died.

We knew this was a possible outcome, as the stress of a move like this can cause an already-compromised animal to decline quickly. The rescue team is committed to learning as much as possible about these critically ill sawfish and what is currently affecting them. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and other partners will conduct a necropsy of this sawfish.

The team will continue to respond to sick sawfish reports and attempt additional rescue efforts when warranted. Each opportunity provides scientists a chance to understand more about this novel approach to safely capture and rehabilitate these animals, and to apply best practices to the next rescue attempt.

Week of April 29

The rescued sawfish is responding to care at Mote Marine Laboratory. It is no longer exhibiting showing neurological symptoms. It is showing typical behaviors of swimming and resting. However, it is not feeding on its own.

The team continued to respond to reported sawfish last week but did not attempt any further rescues. A seemingly symptomatic sawfish was caught and sampled in the St. Lucie River last week. This marks the northernmost extent of affected sawfish.

The team continues to monitor the sawfish hotline. Reports to the hotline have decreased since the peak in early April and remained low. The reduction in sawfish reports parallels a reduction in reports to the fish kill hotline where other affected species are reported. 

Affected sawfish numbers as of April 30:

  • Affected: 179 (as of April 22)

  • Confirmed (recovered) mortalities: 44

April 12, 2024

An endangered smalltooth sawfish is recovering today after being rescued from Cudjoe Key and transported to Mote Marine Laboratory’s facility yesterday. A member of the public reported the animal swimming in circles in Cudjoe Bay. Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Mote Marine Laboratory responded to the distressed sawfish. They completed a quick field assessment that included taking samples, measurements, and tagging, before making the rescue decision. The sawfish was loaded onto a vessel and provided respiratory assistance during the short boat ride to a temporary holding tank. 

First sawfish rescue, Florida Keys 2024, Photo Credit: Mote Marine Lab
First sawfish rescue Florida Keys, Photo Credit: Mote Marine Lab

The sawfish is a 11-foot male. It has been treated and observed around the clock since its rescue on April 5. Veterinarians have provided care and treatment, which will continue for rehabilitation. Once the animal appeared capable of withstanding the nearly 7-hour drive to Mote Marine Lab’s facility, biologists carefully loaded it into a transport trailer operated by Ripley’s Aquariums. Ripley’s Aquariums conservation team monitored the sawfish and water quality conditions throughout the trip to the facility. 

First sawfish rescue, Florida Keys 2024, Photo Credit: Mote Marine Lab
Sawfish rescue Florida Keys, Photo Credit: Mote Marine Lab

Now at Mote, scientists will continue to monitor and treat the sawfish. We hope it will be fully rehabilitated and returned to the wild. We are excited about the successful steps to date in rescuing endangered smalltooth sawfish and look forward to building upon lessons learned.

The team continues to monitor the sawfish hotline for additional rescue opportunities. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has responded to dozens of reports over the last 2 months. They have provided aid and collected samples when possible, as well as performing necropsies on dead sawfish. With this first rescue success, we are hopeful to rescue additional sawfish while continuing to provide aid to others in the wild. If you see a sawfish in distress, call (844) 4-SAWFISH) or email Sawfish@myfwc.com.

March 27, 2024: An Attempt to Rescue Sick Sawfish

Next week, NOAA Fisheries will initiate an emergency response effort with partners to attempt to rescue and rehabilitate smalltooth sawfish affected by this mortality event. We hope to prevent additional losses of this endangered species.

An effort of this kind has never been done before in the United States. The logistics are complex. 

“If the opportunity presents itself, this would be the first attempt ever to rescue and rehabilitate smalltooth sawfish from the wild,” said Adam Brame, NOAA Fisheries’ sawfish recovery coordinator. “We’re hopeful for positive outcomes from these rescue attempts, and grateful to our partners for their support as we work to protect this endangered species.”

“It’s important to note that active rescue and rehabilitation are not always effective in saving stranded animals. However, it can still give us critical information to learn about the nature of the distress,” he added.

Understanding the Response Effort


The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is documenting reports of abnormal fish behavior, including spinning, in the Lower Florida Keys. Along with this abnormal behavior, there have also been reports of fish deaths in these areas, including more than 38 smalltooth sawfish as of April 11. The Commission is leading an effort to investigate the abnormal behavior and cause of death. NOAA Fisheries is leading the rescue effort. 

Why is rescue and rehabilitation necessary?

The smalltooth sawfish was the first marine fish to receive federal protection as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in 2003. They were historically found in coastal waters from Texas to North Carolina, but now generally only found in Florida. 

As of April 11, we have 38 documented sawfish deaths. Affected sawfish have been large juveniles and adults (7–14 feet in length).

“We suspect that total mortalities are greater, since sawfish are negatively buoyant and thus unlikely to float after death,” said Brame. “Given the limited population size of smalltooth sawfish, the mortality of at least two dozen sawfish could have an impact on the recovery of this species.”

Who is participating?

  • NOAA Fisheries
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
  • Havenworth Coastal Conservation
  • Ripley’s Aquariums
  • Mote Marine Laboratory
  • Dynasty Marine Associates, Inc.

What is the care plan for rehabilitation?

Veterinarians and scientists are working to better understand the cause of these issues and will  develop specific care guidelines as we learn more. We will work directly with the animal care teams. The rescued sawfish will be under constant observation at quarantine facilities. With the aid of the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Implementation Team and partners, we will make the final decision about an animal’s rehabilitation status. “Our goal is to release all rescued sawfish back to the wild once rehabilitated,” said Brame.  

Last updated by Southeast Regional Office on May 07, 2024