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Caribbean nations boost protection for extremely rare largetooth sawfish

  • On June 5, Caribbean countries agreed to boost protection for the largetooth sawfish by adding it to Annex II of the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol under the Cartagena Convention.
  • Plants and animals added to Annexes I and II of the SPAW Protocol are afforded the highest levels of protection, with countries falling within the Caribbean region committing to ban the collection, possession or killing of the species, prohibit their commercial trade, and take steps to reduce disturbances to the species.
  • Experts have welcomed the measure, but say that SPAW countries must “follow through with their obligations to implement protections.”
  • Legal protection aside, education and local community involvement is key to giving species like sawfish “a fighting chance,” experts say.

The largetooth sawfish, a large ray with a chainsaw-like nose extension, is among the largest fish in the world, growing more than 6.5 meters (20 feet) in length. This majestic ray is also among the most threatened species of sharks and rays in the world. Once widespread across the waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, the largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) has now become extremely rare and is at the brink of extinction. But a recent agreement brings some hope for the species.

On June 5, Caribbean countries agreed to boost protection for the largetooth sawfish by adding it to Annex II of the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol under the Cartagena Convention, based on a proposal from the Netherlands. Under the SPAW Protocol, countries falling within the Caribbean region commit to work together to manage and protect threatened species.

Plants and animals added to Annexes I and II are afforded the highest levels of protection, with parties to the protocol agreeing to ban the collection, possession or killing of the species, prohibit their commercial trade, and “to the extent possible” take steps to reduce disturbance to the species, “particularly during periods of breeding, incubation, estivation or migration, as well as other periods of biological stress.”

Sawfish experts have welcomed the news.

“Strict protection of largetooth sawfish and their important habitats throughout their range is critical to recovery of the species,” Dean Grubbs, a shark and ray expert at Florida State University, told Mongabay. “We have much to learn about the biology of this species, but it is clear that they cross international boundaries, so coordinated protection among the Caribbean countries is crucial. The addition of the largetooth sawfish to Annex II of the SPAW protocol is a great step forward in these efforts.”

The largetooth sawfish is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. International trade in the species is also prohibited under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). In fact, all five species of sawfish are endangered or critically endangered and have been declining due to a wide range of threats.

These rays are slow-growing and vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear. The fish’s saw-like snouts are used as curios and in ceremonies, and other sawfish parts are used as food and traditional medicine in countries like China, Mexico, Brazil, India and Bangladesh. Their preferred habitats, which include shallow coastal mangroves and seagrass meadows, are also under severe decline across the world.

Mario Espinoza, a marine scientist at the University of Costa Rica who’s spent years studying the largetooth sawfish there, has seen populations of the species suffer large declines in the country over the past three decades. But recent efforts have found some viable populations that could benefit from increased protection.

“I am currently leading an ongoing study to determine the current status of the largetooth sawfish in the entire country (Costa Rica), and we have found that there is a viable population of sawfish in the San Juan River (natural border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua) and northern Caribbean of Costa Rica,” Espinoza said in an email. “Therefore, increasing the level of protection and collaboration among Caribbean countries will be critical to ensure the long-term survival of the species.”

The critically endangered smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), too, was added to SPAW Annex II in 2017, which was again an important step toward its protection. However, more formal “protection” does not necessarily mean that the threats to the species will go away, experts say.

“Protections for that species [smalltooth sawfish] have yet to be put in place in some of the SPAW countries,” Grubbs said. “For this agreement and these listings to have their desired effect, it is imperative that all of the SPAW signatories follow through with their obligations to implement protections for both smalltooth sawfish and largetooth sawfish.”

In Costa Rica, Espinoza’s team found that a formal status of protection aside, education and local community involvement is key to giving a species like sawfish “a fighting chance.” The inclusion of the largetooth sawfish to Annex II of SPAW protocol, however, can bring more focus to the species, including more funds that can support local and regional conservation efforts, he added.

“The future of sawfish (small and largetooth sawfish) in the Caribbean and other regions will depend on strengthening research, education and outreach programs,” Espinoza said. “That will require funding support at the national (local governments) and international levels, as well as building on collaborative efforts.”

Largetooth sawfish. Image by Simon Fraser University – University Communications via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).