Sawfish Research Continues with Help from Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation & Hell’s Bay Boatworks

In October 2010, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and Hell’s Bay Boatworks donated a custom boat and trailer valued at more than $50,000 to the Florida Program for Shark Research. Since then, FPSR director and world-renowned shark expert George Burgess and his team have successfully used the boat on several sawfish* expeditions in south Florida, filing reports in both March and August 2011. The FPSR recently concluded two months of field work to wrap up the 2012 sawfish season, and George submitted this follow-up progress report on the team’s efforts:

The spring sawfish fishing season has been an outstanding success!  We captured and tagged our ESA permitted limit of 11 adults over the course of three Florida Bay field trips undertaken in March and April in Everglades National Park waters.  Analysis of data we curate in the International Sawfish Encounter Database at the Florida Museum of Natural History has demonstrated that this is the prime time period to find large examples of the federally-endangered smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) in the Bay and, with the help of guide-supreme Capt. Jim Wilcox of Bud N Mary’s, we were able to locate areas of local abundance and successfully capture the sawfishes.

Although we are permitted to use longline and gillnet gear, we have employed traditional rod-and-reel techniques to minimize social conflicts with other user groups in the region.  New terminal tackle developed by Capt. Jim allows us to “horse” the hooked animal to boat very quickly, eliminating long and back-breaking 2-4 hour “fights” that characterized earlier captures.  Getting “green” animals alongside is better for the critters while saving field time and our backs.

Nine of the saws received the three-tag “Grand Slam” of a dart tag, an acoustic tag and a satellite pop-up tag.  Two others did not receive the latter as we were so successful capturing sawfish on one trip that we didn’t have enough satellite tags on hand (these are expensive items – $3000-6000 apiece depending on capabilities). On that trip our crew of Yannis Papatamatiou, Bethan Gillett, Allison Strong, Dan Brown and Capt. Jim (I was home nursing a sore hand from a previous “close encounter” with the fighting end of a sawfish) caught nine saws in six days, including one that had been caught and tagged earlier in the trip.  It had moved 16 km (9.4 miles) in three days. On our last trip we caught our final allocation of two sawfishes in about 20 minutes of fishing and our total time from dock to dock, including fishing, retrieval and tagging, was about three hours.  A project record for productive efficiency!

Our 11 saws were overwhelmingly males (10 males and 1 female, the latter the very first animal captured on March 1st).  It would appear that there is some sexual segregation going on in the area at this time of year.  Sizes ranged from 374 cm (12’3”) to 410 cm (13’5”) and all were adults (sexual maturity occurs at about 10 ft. so those commonly reported 6-9 footers are just “babes”).

It’s too early to discuss any data interpretations, but we will be getting preliminary data soon.  At the end of our last short-but-sweet trip we downloaded a couple of our underwater acoustic receivers and found a fair number of “hits,” suggesting both tags and receivers are working well and that at least some of our tagged saws have stayed in the area.  Acoustic tags are gifts that keep on giving so we anticipate getting months of data from these if the saws stay in the Bay.  The satellite tags will be popping up over the next few months, hopefully giving us info on larger scale movement patterns as well and, more importantly, good depth-choice data.

The Hell’s Bay skiff once again earned its keep, allowing us to stick our nose into areas other vessels wouldn’t dare go.  Despite its size, it hangs well with the large sawfishes we hook and bring alongside.  Most impressively, it is a very stable platform such that we can have two or three scientists on one side measuring and tagging the critter without fear of taking on water.  Unfortunately, the beautiful Guy Harvey paint job took a few more hits this spring (I successfully got my hand between the rostrum or “saw” and the hull on one occasion, won’t do that again!), so it bears some new battle scars (as does my hand).  These guys are quick and dangerous when hooked – I guess I’d be mad too…

Thanks again to you folks for your support of our work!

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One Response to Sawfish Research Continues with Help from Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation & Hell’s Bay Boatworks

  1. anonymous says:

    I, for one, will buy a Hell’s Bay boat because of this.

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