Renowned Sawfish Expert George Burgess Discusses Work to Save Critically Endangered Sawfish

In 2010, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and Hell’s Bay Boatworks donated a custom boat and trailer valued at more than $50,000 to renowned sawfish and shark expert George Burgess and the Florida Program for Shark Research for use in the team’s efforts to document and conserve the critically endangered sawfish. This blog has published several of George’s field reports detailing the group’s work in Florida Bay. 

“Once plentiful in local waters, the giant sawfish faces threats”

By Dinah Voyles Pulver, Environment Writer, The Daytona Beach News-Journal (June 4, 2012)

George Burgess is a shark guy. He has studied them for 40 years and tracks every shark bite report internationally. But, ask him about the smalltooth sawfish and his voice fills with admiration.

“Sawfish are ridiculously cool,” said Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida. “Even though I love sharks, it’s kind of hard to beat a sawfish for sexiness. They’re marvelous.”

But the sawfish is in trouble, a victim of both its own biology and human impacts. Experts believe the prehistoric-looking fish was once much more common off the Atlantic Coast and in the Indian River Lagoon system, where a fisherman in the late 1800s reported catching 300 sawfish in a single season. Today, most fishermen haven’t seen a sawfish in the lagoon or offshore in years. Veteran fishing guide Brian Clancy of New Smyrna Beach said he has never seen one.

That’s something Burgess and other researchers and conservation groups would like to change. The team has turned to the public for help, to people who live where the fish are found.

“You can’t recover any species unless people in the area are willing to make it happen,” Burgess said. “It’s in our best interest, not just from a pure emotional standpoint, that we want to save this incredible animal. It’s sort of a swimming fossil of sorts and one of the most archaic things you’ll see in the water.”

At least three local businesses have been involved in the effort, including Benedict Advertising, which donated its services to help launch the Save the Sawfish campaign and website.

Owner Michael Benedict has been involved in the project for several years, helping to link Burgess with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and Chris and Wendi Peterson of New Smyrna Beach in 2010, when the Petersons donated a boat to the university from their Titusville business, Hell’s Bay Boatworks.

Benedict has never seen a sawfish. “I hope to see one someday,” he said. “That’s kind of the whole idea behind this, to give these fish a chance again.”

Named for their hedge-trimmer shaped bills, sawfish are closely related to stingrays. About 2 feet long at birth, they average 18 feet in length as adults. They’ve been protected in Florida since 1992 and federally listed as endangered since 2003.

No local sightings have been reported to the UF-maintained International Sawfish Encounter Database since at least 2007. The database lists one sighting offshore of Volusia County between 2003 and 2007. Between May 2010 and May 2011, 499 sightings were reported in Florida, primarily in Lee and Monroe counties.

Experts estimate the total population of the sawfish at between 5,000 and 10,000.

David Nelson, a fishing captain who leads trips offshore said local sawfish sightings were rare “even back in the day.” His father, Paul Nelson, remembers seeing one in a shrimp net in the 1960s.

Burgess said the biology of the sawfish, “like other sharks and rays, is their Achilles heel.”

“Anything that gets up to 25 feet in length is going to be found in a lot less numbers,” he said. They’re slow growing, slow to mature and produce fewer young. An adult sawfish may reproduce two young every other year that manage to survive to adulthood.

“They were rare from the start and became more and more unusual as we fished them out and changed their habitat.”

Burgess is a member of the federal sawfish recovery team, which includes universities, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and conservation organizations. The partners are attempting to document all encounters, current and historic, Burgess said. Fishermen can report sightings online or by phone. The team has searched old newspapers, fishing reports and museum collections.

The researchers believe a relative of the sawfish, the largetooth sawfish, may be virtually extinct.

Sawfish suffered a double whammy, Burgess said. They live in waters with close proximity to humans, which creates one set of problems, and they’ve also been overfished.

Burgess suspects pollution flowing into the Indian River Lagoon from surrounding suburban development may have impacted the sawfish. Development changes natural water flow cycles in streams and stormwater runoff and nutrients flow into the lagoon from golf courses and yards and change the ecology, he said, causing algal blooms and other problems.

But the bigger problem is they were “mostly fished out of existence,” Burgess said, mainly the result of bycatch while fishermen were trying to catch other things. Their bills left them easily prone to being caught up in nets and fishermen “didn’t much like having them,” he said, because a net would have to be cut to get the sawfish out.

They were also a popular trophy fish. Burgess said you’d be hard-pressed to walk into any South Florida bar that doesn’t have a sawfish hanging on the wall.

Researchers need to know the “nuts and bolts of the biology,” so they can assess the sawfish population and figure out how to help the prehistoric-looking fish recover, Burgess said. They want to know more about where they go, what they eat and their greatest threats.

Burgess and a research team just wrapped up this year’s federally permitted research project in South Florida, touching 11 sawfish, their full permitted allotment.

Recovering the sawfish will be a marathon, “not a sprint to recovery,” Burgess said. It will require reducing mortality and restoring health to inshore waters in the Lagoon.

The following article

“It’s going to take a very long time to bring that population up, maybe 100 years, and we’re about 10 years into that process,” he said. “Our children and grandchildren are going to be working on this.

“It’s a spectacular thing when you see one,” Burgess said. “They’re a dangerous animal if they come up to the surface. I suppose that adds to the intrigue.”

For a fisherman who catches a sawfish, he said, “it’s a moving experience.”

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One Response to Renowned Sawfish Expert George Burgess Discusses Work to Save Critically Endangered Sawfish

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