Smalltooth sawfish.

About The Species

The smalltooth sawfish belongs to a group of fish called elasmobranchs that includes rays, skates, and sharks.  Although shark-like in appearance, they 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 off the coast of Florida. Smalltooth sawfish populations have declined dramatically due to habitat loss associated with coastal development and accidental capture in fisheries

The smalltooth sawfish was the first marine fish to receive federal protection as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in 2003. 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 for fishermen to learn how to respond when they incidentally capture sawfish or other protected species. Smalltooth sawfish also are 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 the U.S. distinct population segment (DPS) of 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, worked with a team of scientists and management partners to develop a recovery plan and continue ongoing public outreach efforts.  

Status

There are few data about historical smalltooth sawfish numbers. Smalltooth sawfish were once found in the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida, and along the East Coast from Florida to New York.  Their distribution has decreased greatly in U.S. waters over the past century, and today the species is only found off the coast of Florida.

ESA Endangered

in 2 distinct population segments

  • U.S. Population
  • Non-U.S. Population
CITES Appendix I

throughout its range

Appearance

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. Their skeletons have no bones and are instead made of cartilage, a firm tissue more flexible than bone. 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 eat a variety of fish and 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 likely help sawfish find shrimp and crabs on the seafloor.

Location Description
In the United States, smalltooth sawfish are most often found off the southwest coast of Florida, from about Charlotte Harbor through the Everglades 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 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 particular species uses habitat. Generally, smalltooth sawfish live in waters warmer than 64°F. Smaller 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.
Smalltooth sawfish range
Lifespan and 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 at around 7 years and when they’ve grown to about 11 feet long. 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.

Threats

Habitat Loss

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.

Bycatch

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 still today, including shrimp trawls, bottom longlines, and recreational hook-and-line gear.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Chondrichthyes
Order
Pristiformes
Family
Pristidae
Genus
Pristis
Species
pectinata

What We Do

Conservation & Management

As part of our mission, NOAA Fisheries is committed to the protection and recovery of smalltooth sawfish. Targeted management actions taken to recover this species include:

  • Designating critical habitat that protects juvenile habitat.

  • Reducing injury and mortality by fisheries and fishing gear.

  • Minimizing human interactions and associated injury and mortality through various public outreach efforts, including safe handling and release guidelines for fishermen.

Science Behind the Scenes

NOAA Fisheries and our partners conduct various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the smalltooth sawfish. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this endangered species. Our work includes:

  • Field surveys for both juvenile and adult smalltooth sawfish.

  • Satellite tagging and active acoustic tracking to monitor short-term movements.

  • Passive acoustic tracking to monitor long-term, large-scale movements.

  • Genetic analyses to evaluate diversity, movements, and patterns within the population.

  • Population monitoring through encounter records provided by the International Sawfish Encounter Database.

How You Can Help

Protect Shoreline Habitats

Three National Wildlife Refuges in Florida protect smalltooth sawfish habitat. If you visit these refuges or other shallow, coastal areas in southern Florida, remember to keep your distance from sawfish and respect their habitat.

You can also help restore coastal habitats by participating in local mangrove planting and other habitat restoration projects, and by participating in coastal clean-ups.

Follow Sawfish Safe Handling and Release Guidelines

Under the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to catch or harm an endangered sawfish. Because  fishermen may catch sawfish incidentally while fishing for other species, safe handling and release guidelines have been developed so they can quickly release hooked sawfish with little or no harm. 

Report Sawfish Sightings

Scientists at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission conduct research on smalltooth sawfish. As part of the research program, the Sawfish Survey asks fishermen, boaters, and beach-goers to report any sawfish they catch or see in the water. Call  (844) 4SAWFISH to make reports and to request information on the species. You can also make reports to sawfish@MyFWC.com or (941) 255-7403, or through the International Sawfish Encounter Database.