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Florida's sawfish makes a rare video cameo. Can it be saved?

The Florida sawfish certainly isn't cuddly, but marine biologists say the creature is fascinating and charismatic. A recent catch in Florida has people taking notice. 

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    Women in an introductory bass fishing class wait for a bite at the Ocala Conservation Center in this March 2012 image, provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
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Sawfish are not particularly pretty, nor are they cuddly or friendly or even majestic. But they did make headlines this week after a video of an accidental catch-and-release in Florida went viral, prompting calls to do more to protect the endangered animal

"Sawfish are essentially a victim of the same things that happen to a lot of marine fish: habitat destruction, overfishing, and very low reproductive rates," George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "They have a hard time recovering in terms of their population growth.

Sawfish are relatives of the shark family, and look almost like a sword fish, except that their long, tooth-ridged snouts look more like sawblades than swords.

They evolved from ancient rays and sharks over the past several million years, and can grow up to 20-feet long and weigh up to a 1,000 pounds.  

While there are several different species of sawfish worldwide, including some in the waters off the shores of the United Arab Emirates, today the United States' remaining sawfish inhabit the shores of a few southern states, such as Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.

One particular species of sawfish, however, the smalltooth sawfish, is found only in a small portion off the west coast of Florida. The US smalltooth sawfish population was listed as endangered in April, 2003.

Since that time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have worked together to develop a plan to protect the sawfish.

Although sawfish populations used to range from around New Jersey to Central America, there are only approximately 2,000 sawfish remaining, a population loss of around 99 percent. 

Habitat loss and gill damage are two of the sawfish's greatest foes. Florida has made some progress in its efforts to save the sawfish, with a 1992 law that banned possession of a sawfish (to control overfishing) and a 1994 law banning gill nets.

The sawfish doesn't get a lot of media attention which makes conservation efforts difficult, according to scientists.

"The smalltooth sawfish has kind of been under the radar screen for quite a while," research biologist John Carlson told the Naples Daily News, "and we really don't know much about these animals at all."

A recent video of an accidental sawfish catch and release at a Florida pier has raised awareness of the animal, which scientists say could be key in helping to save the creature.

Other endangered Florida animals, such as the panther or the manatee, have much more media exposure due to widespread efforts to conserve their species.

Despite the sawfish's rare forays into the public eye, Dr. Leonard says it is a fascinating animal that has captured the attention of the conservation community.

"As a marine biologist, I think that sawfish are incredible," says Leonard. "They're a very charismatic species with really interesting behavior. They've been historically and culturally important for a long time."

And Leonard says the sawfish's appeal should not be limited to conservationists and wildlife advocates. 

"They are charismatic enough that Jim Toomey did a special cartoon about them. Once you’ve made it to the national funnies page, you're pretty darn cool," he says. 

In fact, the fish's cultural importance could be one of the factors that is hindering its recovery. The rostrum, or the sawlike front part of the sawfish's head, has been used in cultural traditions for a long time.

"There's still black market demand for that part of the animal," Leonard told the Monitor. The sawfish's fins are also still prized as a component of shark fin soup, despite global backlash against shark-fin harvesting. 

Although recent efforts have certainly raised the sawfish's public profile, scientists say that even with conservation efforts, sawfish populations could take up to 100 years to recover.

It is crucial, Leonard says, to address issues of bycatch, and to teach fishermen how to properly release sawfish if they are caught by mistake.

Officials are also working on protecting habitats and restricting dredging projects in soft bottom coastal habitats where sawfish like to live.

"People think of whales and polar bears and sea otters as obviously charismatic," says Leonard, "but the ocean is full of a host of unbelievably cool species, and there's a huge opportunity for people to appreciate the diversity of life in the sea."

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