Last updated January 9, 2019 at 2:44 pm
Research organisation needs citizen science photos and information in a quest to save remarkable species.
Researchers at Sharks and Rays Australia (SARA) are enlisting the public to collect data in an effort to study and protect sawfish in Australia.
Sawfish, belonging to the family Pristidae, are most easily identified by the long, flattened rostrum with protruding jagged teeth which resembles a saw. They are a type of ray with a shark-like body and have been known to grow as long as six metres.
SARA scientist Barbara Wueringer is the lead researcher on a new project to understand sawfish populations.
“Today it’s rare to see large sawfish,” she says. “Most reports are three metres or smaller. But we could be wrong. There may still be some big ones out there.”
Researchers are not clear how many of the animals remain in the wild, because they are notoriously stealthy hunters as well as victims of trophy fishing worldwide. They eat smaller fish and use their long saw to literally cut their prey in half.
The species are at risk because their eponymous appendage can be caught in fishing nets. Sawfish have vanished from much of their original range, and today are most commonly found in waters around Queensland, Australia.
“One of the biggest challenges we are facing with the conservation of sawfish in Queensland is that we do not know just how much their numbers have dropped,” says Wueringer.
Jess Hudgins, a researcher at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, says, “We currently estimate that sawfish are extinct in much of their former range along the east coast of Australia, but this picture might be incomplete.”
SARA is requesting that anyone with information or photographs of the fish, regardless of when they were seen or taken, submit them to the SARA project website.
The data is expected to allow researchers to better understand how populations have changed over time, and better inform efforts to protect them.
Sawfish are a protected species in much of the world, including Australia, and it is illegal to fish or remove their saws – a practice which usually results in death.
Wueringer describes the project further, saying “we’re working with local Indigenous Ranger groups, fishers, and landowners, and with scientists from around the world”.
“To make a real difference we’re now calling for wider public participation. Through this citizen science initiative, you can make the difference to sawfish survival.”
Hudgins adds: “They’re so unique and special. They’re a big part of Australian history and culture. It would be tragic if we lost them forever.”
SARA is located in Cairns and the project is supported by the Save Our Seas Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, and the Shark Conservation Fund based in the US.