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Welcome to the Summer/Fall Sawfish Newsletter (Nick Dulvy and Colin Simpfendorfer): The past year has revealed a juggernaut of momentum for sawfish conservation. Following the publication of the IUCN Sawfish Conservation Strategy back in 2014 we felt a tumbleweed rolling silently around for about 18 months. While it was clear that there was increasing consensus of the need to act among the academic and agency scientists and an increasing number of small NGOs, it was not at all clear that there were any resources to support the actions. This summer's fantastic American Elasmobranch Society Sawfish Symposium, led by Dean Grubbs and Greg Poulakis has revealed that there is a large number of very resourceful people doing what they can for sawfishes in some very ingenious and thrifty ways in a wide range of countries throughout sawfish ranges. One of the most exciting outcomes is the high collegiate and collaborative nature of this sawfish work. When funding is limited there is a natural tendency for competition to set in which can ultimately set back conservation. However, it is clear that the conservation imperative is being felt by all. As a result people are doing whatever they can to share knowledge and scarce resources. In that spirit we offer up this space to help build a community for sawfish conservation.

Call for Information: Sawfishes in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (Kerstin Forsberg): In order to achieve regional collaboration for sawfishes in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, the IUCN SSG is partnering with Planeta Océano and Protect Africa's Sawfishes to assess potential synergies that could be developed in this region, as well as interest and availability to conduct specific joint initiatives.

If you are working with sawfishes in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, please complete the following online questionnaire. The survey takes less than five minutes to complete. Based on this survey, selected collaborative actions could be implemented, supported in part by The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

American Elasmobranch Society: Biology and Ecology of Sawfishes Symposium, New Orleans, Louisiana: The annual meeting of the American Elasmobranch Society was held this year in New Orleans, Louisiana. Dr. Dean Grubbs (Florida State University, Tallahassee) and Gregg Poulakis (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Gulf Coast University) Co-Chaired the symposium. The goals of this symposium were (1) to bring international researchers and their collaborators together to communicate latest results, (2) to have participants share their experiences and expertise working with fishes that are rare and inherently difficult to study, and (3) to foster the development of future collaborations. Presentations featured information on a variety of topics such as telemetry, integrative multisensor tagging, feeding and trophic dynamics, age and growth, physiology, sensory biology, reproductive biology, population genetics, conservation, and management.

If you missed the symposium, please check out this fantastic Storify from David Shiffman (SSG Communications Advisor).

Presenters from the 2016 American Elasmobranch Society Biology and Ecology of Sawfishes Symposium

Africasaw Network (Armelle Jung): In 2012 Armelle Jung (Des Requins et Des Homes, Technopôle Brest-Iroise, France) initiated a project in Western Africa (Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone). This project was launched by Des Requins et Des Hommes in collaboration with Florida University and Sub-Regional Commission for Fisheries based in Dakar.
Since 2010 Project Africasaw has collected over 700 catch records, including 45 by-catches. These findings provide a positive sign for remaining sawfish populations for two species within the major west African areas of south Senegal, Guinea Bissau, and south Sierra Leone. More than the half of these catch/sightings data came from marine protected areas (MPAs), which confirms their active role in biodiversity preservation despite concerns about the effectiveness of MPA communication and control.

These data came from the Alert Network, which is now able to support training, sensitization, and data collection. This project will hopefully be extend in order to continue the research efforts and broaden the scope through the integration of multiple approaches tackled by a multidisciplinary, international team. Using a combination of network building, training of regional stakeholders, and genetic analyses, this project is able to create the opportunity to assess sawfish distribution and population structure in Western Africa while leaving a lasting educational and conservation impact on local communities. Get involved!

Check out Africasaw Network's sightings and safe release poster here.

Engaging with the Africasaw Alert Network in Western Africa. (Photo credit: Armelle Jung)

Florida State University Sawfish Research in the United States and the Bahamas (Dean Grubbs): Dr. Dean Grubbs (Florida State University (FSU), Tallahassee) conducts smalltooth sawfish research in the U.S. (primarily in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys) and in the Bahamas (primarily the island of Andros). His team uses a combination of satellite tagging and acoustic monitoring to examine long-term movement and habitat use patterns and to determine if there is mixing between U.S. and Bahamas populations. In Florida, Dr. Grubbs also tries to determine the temporal and spatial patterns of habitat use for adult sawfish, particularly in areas where sawfish aggregations overlap with commercial fishing operations, particularly shrimp trawling. During sampling, he collects blood with Dr. Jim Gelsleichter, a colleague who is using blood samples to examine reproductive hormone cycling in an effort to determine the timing of mating and parturition. Dr. Grubbs also conducts ultrasounds on adult females to assess pregnancy status. Over the past several years we have found a number of potential aggregation sites for adults of both sexes. Some of these are in very shallow waters in Florida Bay and others are in water depths between 45 and 70 meters off the edge of the continental shelf. The team uses the blood hormone analyses to determine if these aggregations may be related to mating. Finally, with colleagues from NOAA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, FSU graduate student Bianca Prohaska is investigating secondary responses to physiological stress in blood. She hopes to determine the relative stress in adult sawfish following capture using varied commercial and recreational capture methods. Ms. Prohaska also aims to compare baseline stress in juvenile sawfish captured in relatively pristine habitats to those captured in highly human-altered nursery habitats.

Dean Grubbs holds a juvenile smalltooth sawfish in Everglades National Park while doctoral student Bianca Prohaska collects blood to assess physiological stress (photo credit: Dean Grubbs).

Jim Gelsleichter and Dean Grubbs, along with doctoral student Bianca Prohaska, assess pregnancy status using ultrasound on an adult females smalltooth sawfish in the Florida Keys (photo credit: Dean Grubbs).

Sawfish in the Sudanese Red Sea (Igbal Elhassan): Igbal Elhassan (University of Bahri, Khartoum, Sudan) first developed an interest in sawfish in 2000, when during a study on sharks in the Sudanese Red Sea she learned about the scarcity of sawfish along the Sudanese coast In August of that year two boats were caught fishing illegally along the southern Sudanese coast. In their catch, which included five tonnes of shark and three tonnes of bony fish, there was only a single sawfish. Again on December 12 of the same year, two boats were caught in the southern coast and there was only one sawfish among tons of sharks. This sawfish was a pregnant female that was 350 cm in total length and had large eggs in the uterus. Ms. Elhassan began collecting data on sawfishes in 2000. Her goal was to investigate the past and the current status of sawfish, identify the species of sawfish present, and investigate some reproductive parameters of sawfishes in the Sudanese Red Sea. Another goal of her research was to raise awareness among the fisheries about the status of sawfish and encourage fishers to release sawfish live. She collected data from field work, from trawls along the southern coast, and from standard questionnaires that were conducted from 2011 to 2016. These questionnaires included 337 fishermen (age 17 to 93), and 40 fish traders and divers were interviewed... Read more here.

Measuring sawfish rostra in Sudan while fishers look on (photo credit: Igbal Elhassan).

Océanos Vivientes A C spearheads sawfish conservation project in Mexico (Ramon Bonfil): Last year, Dr. Ramón Bonfil from Océanos Vivientes A C - a young Mexican conservation NGO - started the first-ever study of smalltooth (Pristis pectinata) and largetooth (P. pristis) sawfishes in the country. After developing specific materials to survey fishers, raise community awareness, and publicize sawfish conservation needs, he and his team interviewed over 800 fishermen in 71 coastal towns along both coasts of Mexico. Interview results indicate that both sawfish species are nearly extirpated, however several unconfirmed reports of recent sightings, plus the capture of a live juvenile smalltooth sawfish in early 2016 call for further work.  

Interviewing fishers about sawfish presence. (Photo credit: Ramon Bonfil)

Océanos Vivientes A C is working to get both species re-categorized in conservation status in Mexican legislation. Also, with limited funding from Mexico’s government, they are about to begin direct surveys in a few carefully chosen coastal areas to look for live sawfishes. The team will be using gillnets and drones to try to find remnant aggregations of live sawfishes, as well as satellite tags define the essential habitat of both species.  Pending further funding, Océanos Vivientes A C will expand these methodologies to other areas of the Mexican coast, implement environmental DNA techniques to further aid in the search for live sawfishes, and expand interview surveys to countries in Central America. 

Dr. Bonfil and an assistant measuring an old sawfish rostrum. (Photo credit: Ramon Bonfil)

New and Noteworthy Publications: 

Amorim Reis-Filho, J., Renato, H.A.F., Lolola, M., Leite, L., Soeiro, G., Oliveira, H.H.Q., Sampaio, C.L.S., Nunes, J.A.C.C., Leduc, A.O.H.C. 2016. Traditional fisher perceptions on the regional disappearance of the largetooth sawfish Pristis pristis from the central coast of Brazil. Endangered Species Research 29: 189-200.

Leeney, R. 2016. Fishers' ecological knowledge of sawfishes in Lake Piso, Liberia. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 26: 381-385.

Leeney, R.H. and Downing, N. 2015. Sawfishes in The Gambia and Senegal - shifting baselines over 40 years. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 26: 265-278.

Wakefield, C.B., Santana-Garcon, J., Dorman, S.R., Blight, S., Denham, A., Wakeford, J., Molony, B.W., Newman, S.J. 2016. Performance of bycatch reduction devices varies for chondrichthyan, reptile, and cetacean mitigation in demersal fish trawls: assimilating subsurface interactions and unaccounted mortality. ICES Journal of Marine Science, doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsw143.

Copyright © 2016 IUCN Shark Specialist Group, All rights reserved.

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