Largetooth sawfish, feared locally extinct, returns to Peru
September 6, 2017
Sawfish are bizarre and mysterious creatures. With their long, saw-like snouts they shuffle along the bottom of the oceans unnoticed by most. But years of overfishing, either intentional or accidental, and the destruction of mangrove habitat, has led every species of sawfish to be listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. But recently a study reported the first captures of sawfish in Peruvian waters since 1999, offering hope for their survival.
All across the world sawfish are under pressure as they are vulnerable to capture in nets, particularly gill nets, as their jagged snouts easily become entangled and are unable to free themselves. Hence, they are often caught as by-catch by fisherman. This pressure, and the loss of mangrove habitat which provides important breeding grounds for the sawfish, has heavily impacted the eastern Pacific population. One study estimated that its range stretched from the Gulf of Mexico all the way down to Peru, but found only a few of them scattered off the coasts of Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia. This led to the conclusion that its range had shrunk by a staggering 80 percent.
Simon Fraser University/ Wikicommons
As late as the 1990s, fishermen reported seeing sawfish in the waters of northern Peru. But as the study notes “overfishing was driven by the high value in Peru of sawfish teeth,” which were utilised as fighting spurs in cockfights. By the turn of the millennium sawfish were rarely, if ever seen.
In 2014 and 2015 however, two sawfish were landed at two different ports in Tumbes in northern Peru. The first was slaughtered and its teeth sold off, presumably to arm a fighting cock. The second was captured alive and the authorities decided to release it. Earlier this year fisherman hauled up a third 300kg sawfish near Máncora. Although such captures are still incredibly rare, it suggests the species is not in fact extinct from Peru’s waters, offering some hope that the existing populations, however small, could be bolstered with increased protection.
But this requires extensive conservation work, the authors write. They believe that northern Peru, and parts of Ecuador, which abut mangroves could act as an important breeding ground as sawfish rely upon these areas of habitat as nurseries. But currently sawfish aren’t a protected species in Peru, until this changes, and their habitat is preserved, the species could well vanish once again.
This study was published in the journal Check List and is available in full here.