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.
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.
- U.S. Population
- Non-U.S. Population
CITES Appendix I
- Throughout Its Range
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 still today, including shrimp trawls, bottom longlines, and recreational hook-and-line gear.
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. NOAA Fisheries is working to protect this species in many ways, with the goal of increasing these populations to a point where the protections of the ESA are no longer needed to ensure survival.
Recovery Planning and Implementation
Under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries develops and implements recovery plans for the conservation and survival of listed species. The goal of the smalltooth sawfish plan is to recover the U.S. DPS so that its status can first be reclassified from “endangered” to “threatened,” and then ultimately removed from the list of protected species.
The ESA authorizes NOAA Fisheries to appoint recovery teams to assist with the development of species recovery plans. We convened the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Team—consisting of scientists and environmental managers—to develop a recovery plan for this species. The team published the first Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Plan (PDF, 2.4MB) in 2009 and is currently updating it to incorporate new information.
Under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries can also appoint teams to help implement recovery plans. The Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery and Implementation Team works with state and federal resource management agencies to develop regulations to reduce interactions between sawfish and commercial fisheries. The team also works with government agencies, conservation organizations, and fishing groups to implement an education and outreach plan. These efforts aim to increase awareness and help sawfish survive human interactions.
Critical Habitat Designation
Once a species is listed under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries evaluates and identifies whether any areas meet the definition of critical habitat. Those areas may be designated as critical habitat through a rulemaking process. The designation of an area as critical habitat does not create a closed area, marine protected area, refuge, wilderness reserve, preservation, or other conservation area; nor does the designation affect land ownership. Federal agencies that undertake, fund, or permit activities that may affect these designated critical habitat areas are required to consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure that their actions do not adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.
In 2009, NOAA Fisheries designated two areas along the southwestern coast of Florida as critical habitat for the U.S. DPS of smalltooth sawfish. We designated these areas because they provide important juvenile nursery habitat, where young sawfish can find food easily and avoid predators.
View the smalltooth sawfish critical habitat map (PDF, 1 page).
Reducing Commercial Fishing Impacts
A number of commercial fisheries incidentally catch smalltooth sawfish, as the species is extremely vulnerable to entanglement in nets, lines, and trawls. Various fishing gear modifications and fishing regulations have been implemented to minimize the impacts to sawfish from the commercial fishing industry. For example, Florida has banned the use of gill nets in state waters. Safe handling and release guidelines also have been developed for fishermen. These guidelines explain how to remove a sawfish from different types of fishing gear, and also ask that fishermen record details about encounters in their logbooks.
NOAA Fisheries provides protocols for commercial fishing vessels to reduce the impacts of hook-and-line gear on smalltooth sawfish.
Reducing Recreational Fishing Impacts
Because smalltooth sawfish accidentally caught while fishing must be released as quickly as possible, NOAA Fisheries developed guidelines explaining how recreational anglers can safely handle and release the species.
Educating the Public
Together with state partners and conservation groups, we have developed programs to educate the public about the endangered status of smalltooth sawfish, as well as prohibitions against capturing, harming, or harassing them.
Through international cooperation and conservation efforts, NOAA Fisheries and the International Union for Conservation of Nature are working with our partners to protect smalltooth sawfish. In response to the dramatic depletion of all sawfish species, the International Union’s Shark Specialist Group recently initiated a Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy. Key policy recommendations and conservation activities include:
Training people in local fisheries to conduct sawfish surveys in key regions, including West Africa.
Helping these key regions develop national and regional plans to recover sawfish.
To prevent illegal trade, creating manuals to help fishermen, customs agents, and enforcement personnel identify sawfish and sawfish parts.
Reducing sawfish bycatch in trawl and gillnet fisheries in southeast Asia and other bycatch hotspots around the world.
Also, because of the threat to sawfish from trade, all sawfish species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Commercial trade in all sawfish, except for one Australian species traded for commercial aquaria, is prohibited. NOAA played a leading role in the listing of sawfish species under CITES.
In 1999, NOAA Fisheries received a petition (PDF, 34KB) from the Ocean Conservancy (then the Center for Marine Conservation) requesting that both smalltooth sawfish and largetooth sawfish be listed as endangered.
The formal review of smalltooth sawfish began in March 2000, and we completed a status review (PDF, 528KB) that December.
In April 2001, we published a proposed rule to list the U.S. DPS of this species as endangered. After a public comment period on the proposed rule, we published the final rule listing this DPS as an endangered species under the ESA in 2003.
Under the ESA, we perform 5-year reviews of species listed as threatened or endangered to ensure the classification of these species remains accurate. We completed a 5-year review (PDF, 765KB) for smalltooth sawfish in 2010 and a second 5-year review is currently in draft.
In September 2010, we received a petition (PDF, 2.3MB) from WildEarth Guardians requesting that the non-U.S. population(s) of this species be listed under the ESA. Following a full status review of non-U.S. smalltooth sawfish, we listed the non-U.S. distinct population segment of smalltooth sawfish as endangered in 2014.
Key Actions & 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 during 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.
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
The International Sawfish Encounter Database maintains information about sightings and captures of smalltooth sawfish, which helps scientists estimate population size and habitat preferences. The database combines data from several sources, including Mote Marine Lab, Florida Museum of Natural History, NOAA Fisheries, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as well as from encounters reported by boaters, anglers, and divers.
Published Date: 2000