Australia - the life-boat for sawfish as species face global extinction

By : Humane Society International February 12, 2021

A new study has found that Australia is the last stronghold on earth for four out of five species of sawfish, as these iconic fish go extinct elsewhere.

The international study, including scientists from Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, found that sawfish are now extinct in more than half (55) of the 90 nations where they were once found.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) and Humane Society International (HSI) said the findings illustrated the urgency of strengthening protections and recovery plans for endangered and critically endangered species of sawfish in Australia in the national environmental laws and in fishing rules. 

Tooni Mahto, campaign manager at AMCS said: “There is hope. Australia has the expertise, the resources, and some of the world’s most pristine marine wildernesses throughout northern Australia to save sawfish. But if we don’t act now to strengthen protections against threats like capture in fishing gear and habitat destruction, we will fail in our responsibilities as custodians of these unique species.”

Although sawfish are protected from targeted commercial and recreational fishing in Australia, sawfish are often caught in gillnets and trawl nets because their distinctive saw-like rostrum is easily entangled. When caught in nets, sawfish often have their rostrum cut off because of a perceived or real threat to fisher safety, resulting in the sawfish’s death from blood loss and starvation.

“The plight of the sawfish is yet another reason why our national environmental laws urgently need strengthening,” added Ms Mahto. 

“If we can improve protections and mandate recovery plans for these species of sawfish under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, managing and reversing their decline, there could be a brighter future for these iconic fish and not just in Australia.

“That’s why we need the Morrison Government to follow the road map provided in the recent review of the laws by Professor Graeme Samuel, in order to help stem the extinction crisis highlighted by this research.”

Lawrence Chlebeck, marine biologist at HSI said there was evidence of sawfish recovery in other countries following conservation efforts.

“In the United States, the smalltooth sawfish population is considered to be rising due to increased awareness of their conservation status and plight, better habitat protection and coastal gillnet bans,” he said.

“We need more robust conservation measures in our fishing rules across the north of Australia and stronger environmental laws to ensure we can continue to be a stronghold and refuge for this species.”

The organisations have launched a campaign to drive better protection for sharks and rays, encouraging Australians to become Shark Champions and create healthier oceans. Sign up to Shark Champions at www.sharkchampions.org.au

The four sawfish species found in Australia are the dwarf, green, narrowtooth and largetooth.

Image: Peter Kyne

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About HSI Australia

HSI concentrates on the preservation of endangered animals and ecosystems and works to ensure quality of life for all animals, both domestic and wild. HSI is the largest animal protection not-for-profit organisation in the world and has been established in Australia since 1994