Sawfish: Fishing with Dinosaurs Part 2

In the heart of the Keys prehistoric creature lurks that is as elusive as it is rare. It sits on the brink of extinction, however a few committed individuals and organizations are working to save it.

It can grow to gargantuan lengths of 20 feet and sometimes longer and can weigh half a ton. However, this creature is rarely seen. Humans have pushed it to the brink of extinction.

The creature in question is the sawfish.

About Sawfish

There are two types of sawfish, the large and smalltooth. Once common from New York to Texas, they are now confined to the backcountry areas surrounding Islamorada such as Florida Bay, Flamingo and the Everglades.

According to George Burgess, director of shark research at the University of Florida and leading sawfish researcher, a rough estimate of smalltooth sawfish in the U.S. is anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 fish. The largetooth sawfish is most likely extinct in the United States.

Sawfish are now so rare that Captain James Wilcox who has been guiding for 15 years out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada said, “it was a big deal to catch one a year and it was a once in a life time experience”.

The Sawfish Problem

The sawfish’s decline was caused by commercial and sport fishing in that every fish caught became a trophy, but the predominant factor was loss of habitat. “Their rostrums would easily get tangled in fishing nets, loss of sea grasses – habitat destruction and their closeness to people in general”, said Burgess.

Sawfish are a rare animal to begin with and what makes this situation even trickier is that they started to disappear under our noses and are now a federally endangered species. “The problem is that they were disappearing before we were able to start looking at them”, said Burgess. “Since they’re now protected we can’t dissect them so we have to use indirect methods to gather information about things such as diet and age”.

Sawfish are so important to Florida’s marine ecosystems because they’re an indicator species. An indicator species is essentially a bellwether for an ecosystem. In short, if saws are surviving and thriving then the rest of the ecosystem is as well.

As gloomy as the future of the sawfish seems, there just might be hope. “Back 15-20 years ago people never saw them or even heard of them”, said Bud N’ Mary’s guide Captain Richard Stanczyk. “Now we see a lot more of them especially as a bycatch when tarpon and shark fishing.”

George Burgess and the University of Florida with the help of James Wilcox, Hell’s Bay Boatworks and others are catching, tagging and releasing saws to learn more about them and help bring them back. Since 2010 they have managed to tag almost 20 sawfish.

The Future

Recovery won’t be easy; it won’t be measured in years but in decades. According to Burgess; the estimated recovery time for the sawfish is about a hundred years.

What has spurred the recovery of the sawfish was that it was no longer a gamefish and so was illegal to take sawfish for trophies and records.

However, the largest factor was the ban on gill nets in the Florida Straits. Although sawfish are making a comeback and there are more sightings, one of the overall goals is to keep humans and saws as far away from each other as possible for the benefit of all parties involved.

Florida Fish and Wildlife has also played a part in the battle for sawfish by setting strict rules for the handling of these fish. It is illegal to handle or take saws out of the water not only for the safety of the fish, but for anglers as well. Fisherman must cut the line once they see it is a sawfish and should call the Fish and Wildlife’s sawfish encounter hotline to report the siting.

If sawfish end up back in places like New York and Texas, then the efforts will be judged successful. A continued net ban as well as plans that are in the works to try to keep them separated from humans will help the recovery.

Only time will tell if this living fossil will return to its former numbers.

A Special thanks to the following:

  • Captain James Wilcox
  • Captain Richard Stanczyk
  • George Burgess
  • The University of Florida
  • Hells Bay Boatworks
  • Bud N’ Mary’s Marina


I own none of these videos nor do I claim to. They are property of PRESSLAUNCH PRODUCTIONS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *