Cape Town - A global strategy to help save endangered sawfish – which face a greater risk of extinction than any other family of marine fish – was launched at the Sharks International Conference in Durban on Wednesday.
The five species of sawfish are a type of ray known as “shark-like rays”, and have been hammered by fishing, both targeted and accidental. The creatures’ long, toothed snouts, which they use to wound prey, easily become tangled in all types of fishing gear, but particularly trawl and gillnets, and their numbers have plummeted.
Sonja Fordham, president of the US-based Shark Advocates International and deputy chairwoman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Shark Specialist Group, said it was difficult for the animals to be targeted by fisheries now because their number were so low.
They lived close inshore, in shallow water, particularly in mangroves. They have been targeted for their meat and for their rostra – their long snouts – which are sold as curios.
“You see them for sale on international auctions. They also have particularly valuable fins, among the most valuable in the shark-fin trade. They have a number of medicinal usages for perceived medicinal properties, from the eggs to the livers to the rostra. In Central America they have been targeted for their meat. In Nicaragua in the 1970s, 100 000 animals were gone within a few years.”
There is a Cites ban on international commercial trade in sawfish, and the strategy hopes to complement the ban.
It calls for national and regional action to outlaw the intentional killing of sawfish, to minimise sawfish deaths from accidental catches, to protect sawfish habitats and to ensure effective enforcement of these safeguards.
The strategy includes ways to communicate the strategy, to build capacity, to carry out strategic research and to raise funds to implement the strategy.
The launch of the strategy coincides with the announcement that Guinea and Guinea Bissau are to propose listing of sawfish under the Convention on Migratory Species under Cites in November, which is likely to boost their protection if adopted.
Fordham said the US and Australia had strict laws to protect sawfish and it appeared the small-toothed sawfish populations were improving in the US. The large-toothed sawfish has not been seen in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1960s. They are protected in South Africa.
“The records from shark net deaths in South Africa show that there were 30 sawfish killed in the nets in the 1980s, three in the 1990s and none since then, so they are in dire straits. Across the globe there are so many regions where they have not been seen for decades.”
Sawfish are the largest of the rays at up to 7 metres. They were once found in the coastal waters of more than 90 tropical and subtropical countries, but today all five species are classified as endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Another cause of their demise is habitat destruction, particularly mangroves. In the last 20 years of the last century, 35 percent of the world’s mangroves were wiped out.