- Final Rule (79 FR 73978, December 12, 2014)
- Proposed Rule (78 FR 33300, June 4, 2013)
- 90-day Finding (76 FR 12308, March 7, 2011)
About the Species
The smalltooth sawfish is one of five species of sawfish. All sawfish belong to a group of fish called elasmobranchs that includes rays, skates, and sharks. Elasmobranchs have no bones and their skeletons are instead made of cartilage, a firm tissue more flexible than bone. Although shark-like in appearance, sawfish are actually rays, as their gills and mouths are found on the underside of their bodies. Sawfish get their name from their distinct rostrum—a long, flat snout edged with teeth—that looks like a saw.
Smalltooth sawfish live in tropical seas and estuaries (semi-enclosed areas where rivers meet the sea) of the Atlantic Ocean. They are most at home in shallow, coastal waters, and sometimes enter the lower reaches of freshwater river systems. In the United States, they can be found in Florida’s coastal waters.
Smalltooth sawfish populations declined dramatically during the second half of the 20th century due to habitat loss associated with coastal development and accidental capture in fisheries. In response, NOAA Fisheries listed the U.S. distinct population segment (DPS) of smalltooth sawfish as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2003; making it the first marine fish to receive federal protection. In 2014, the non-U.S. DPS of smalltooth sawfish was listed as endangered. Under the ESA, it is illegal to catch, harm, harass, or kill an endangered sawfish. However, some fishermen catch sawfish as bycatch (i.e., incidentally while fishing for other species). Safe handling and release guidelines have been developed to guide fishermen how to respond when they incidentally capture sawfish or other protected species.
The smalltooth sawfish is also listed as a migratory species threatened with extinction (Appendix I) under the United Nations Environment Programme Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Participating countries strive to strictly protect these animals, conserving and restoring the places where they live, and mitigating obstacles to migration.
NOAA Fisheries is committed to protecting and rebuilding smalltooth sawfish. Our scientists and partners use a variety of innovative techniques to study and protect smalltooth sawfish, as there is still much to learn about their life history and distribution. To date, we have designated critical habitat for the U.S. DPS, worked with a team of scientists and management partners to develop a recovery plan and continue ongoing public outreach efforts.
There are few data about historical smalltooth sawfish abundance but reports suggest they were a prominent member of the fish community in the southeastern United States. Smalltooth sawfish were once found in the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida and along the East Coast from Florida to North Carolina. Their distribution has decreased greatly in U.S. waters over the past century, and today, the species is generally only found off the coast of Florida.
- U.S. Population
ESA Endangered - Foreign
- Non-U.S. Population
CITES Appendix I
- Throughout Its Range
SPAW Annex II
- Throughout the Wider Caribbean Region
Smalltooth sawfish are olive gray to brown on top and have a white underside. Although sawfish have shark-like bodies, they are actually a type of ray. They are named after their "saws" (rostra)—long, flat snouts edged with teeth. Smalltooth sawfish have 22 to 29 teeth on each side of their snout. Smalltooth sawfish look very similar to largetooth sawfish and it can be hard to tell the two species apart.
Behavior and Diet
Smalltooth sawfish primarily eat fish but may also consume invertebrates (e.g., shrimp and crabs). They use their rostra to slash through schools of fish, swinging it from side to side to impale and stun prey. Their rostra also contain electro-sensitive organs, which can sense the weak amount of electricity produced by other animals. These organs help sawfish identify when prey is nearby.
Where They Live
In the United States, smalltooth sawfish are most often found off the southwest coast of Florida, from about Charlotte Harbor through the Everglades and Florida Keys region at the southern tip of the state. Outside the United States, smalltooth sawfish have been confirmed to live in the Bahamas and Sierra Leone (a single confirmed record). However, informal reports suggest they might also be found off the coasts of Honduras, Belize, Cuba, and Guinea Bissau. Smalltooth sawfish use a variety of coastal habitats depending on life stage. During their first 2 years, juveniles live in estuaries and the smaller habitats within them, such as shallow portions of bays, lagoons, and rivers. Once they reach approximately 7 feet, they begin moving out of the shallow estuaries into more coastal habitats. Larger juveniles and adults can be found in estuaries, off beaches, and along deep-water reefs. A number of factors, such as water temperature, water depth, shoreline vegetation, and salinity, affect how and when a sawfish uses a habitat. Generally, smalltooth sawfish live in waters warmer than 64°F. Small sawfish tend to live in shallow water and move to deeper waters as they grow. For example, in Charlotte Harbor, Florida—an important nursery and research area for smalltooth sawfish—we’ve learned that juvenile sawfish have an affinity for water that’s at least 70°F and less than 3 feet deep.
Lifespan & Reproduction
Smalltooth sawfish are "yolk-sac viviparous"—their young are attached to yolk sacs that nourish the embryo inside the mother's body and emerge as fully developed pups. The pups are born with their saw fully developed, but it is very flexible and sheathed in a thick gelatinous material to avoid injuring the mother at birth (the sheath dissolves quickly thereafter). A mother smalltooth sawfish can have 7 to 14 pups per litter. Newborn sawfish are approximately 2 feet long at birth and double in size over their first year. Sawfish reach sexual maturity beginning around 7 years and when they’ve reached a size of about 11 feet. The length of the female smalltooth sawfish gestation period, or pregnancy, is believed to be 12 months and females can give birth every other year.
Young sawfish rely on shallow estuarine habitats fringed with vegetation, especially red mangroves, as nursery areas. Development of the waterfront in Florida and other southeastern states has changed or destroyed much of this habitat. This potentially affects areas in which sawfish can give birth and juveniles can survive.
Historically, sawfish were often accidentally caught in fishing nets, particularly inshore gill nets. Because sawfish have the potential to damage fishing gear and pose a threat to fishermen, they were often killed rather than being released unharmed. While this threat has largely been reduced with the 1995 enactment of the Florida Net Ban Amendment, sawfish are still incidentally caught in a variety of fishing gears today, including shrimp trawls, bottom longlines, and recreational hook-and-line gear.
Recreational Fishing Regulations
Commercial Fishing Regulations
Subsistence Fishing Regulations
The U.S. distinct population segment of smalltooth sawfish has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 2003. The non-U.S. distinct population segment (e.g., Bahamas) was listed as endangered in 2014. This means that both distinct population segments are in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range.
Key Actions and Documents
NOAA Fisheries and our partners conduct various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the smalltooth sawfish. Some of our partners include the state of Florida as well as universities, nonprofits, and international organizations. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this endangered species.
Collecting Sawfish Data
Sawfish researchers collect data from sawfish carcasses that are found and reported, sawfish incidentally caught in federal fisheries, and sawfish that are collected during field surveys for the species. Reported sawfish carcasses are necropsied and samples are collected that can aid in age growth models.
Field surveys for smalltooth sawfish are the most important method for collecting data. A variety of survey methods are used to capture live sawfish for scientific purposes, including longline, rod-and-reel, and gillnets. Once captured, a variety of measurements and samples are taken from each fish prior to release.
Small tissue samples are collected after capture for genetic analysis. Genetics are useful in understanding population structure, diversity within the population, and both the size and health of the current population in comparison to the historical. As an example, we are using genetics to determine whether there is significant movement and genetic exchange between the U.S. and Bahamas populations of smalltooth sawfish. Genetics have also been recently used to infer reproductive behaviors including rates of reproduction and parturition site fidelity (moms using the same geographic locations to pup young).
Blood samples are collected from sawfish to measure reproductive status and stress physiology. Hormones within the blood are used to assess reproductive cycling and periodicity. Blood samples for stress physiology can be used to assess post-release mortality risk from a variety of fisheries.
Scientists are using the most recent technology to track the movements of smalltooth sawfish. This tracking involves capturing the animals, equipping them with acoustic pingers, and releasing them. Depending on the objectives of the project, scientists may track them in a boat using hydrophones to determine short-term microhabitat use or set up a network of inwater receivers (acoustic listening stations) to track longer-term broad-scale movements. Acoustic pingers may be active for short periods of time or long periods of time lasting up to 10 years.
Sawfish caught during surveys are also often fitted with GPS satellite tags. These types of tags are generally used on larger juveniles and adults. Because far less is known about these larger animals, researchers hope that satellite tags can reveal important adult habitats. Satellite tagging studies to date have shown that larger sawfish spent 96 percent of their time in shallow coastal waters.
Population Monitoring Through Encounter Reports
If you catch or see a sawfish, take a quick photograph of the sawfish, estimate its size, note your location, and please share the details with scientists. The details of your sightings or catches of sawfish help experts monitor the population and track the recovery progress. You can share your information by calling 1-844-4-SAWFISH (844-472-9347) or submit your encounter online.
The 2018 status review for Smalltooth sawfish conducted to ensure the listing classification of the…
The 2010 status review for smalltooth sawfish conducted to ensure the listing classification of the…
Data & Maps
Tracks the implementation of recovery actions from Endangered Species Act (ESA) recovery plans.