It started as an idea in mid 2018 – after we received almost 150 sawfish saws as donations by Queensland Fisheries and members of the general public. How to use them? In March 2019, Barbara and I talked for the first about her vision of displaying these saws all over Far North Queensland, warning fishers of the negative impact of bycatch, and teaching people how to release sawfish safely.
SARA secured funding from the Queensland Chief Scientist’s Citizen Science grant and in October 2019, I joined on site as an intern. With a preliminary display design, I began to reach out to locations all over the Cape. After securing further funding from Save Our Seas Foundation, we began ordering frames and preparing designs to accompany the saws, aiming for delivery by April 2020.
And then everything shut down – the frames were stuck in the USA, I was stuck in New Zealand, and Cape York went into military enforced lockdown until July! The project was put on hold.
After 9 months of what felt like the longest year ever, borders reopened and the team was finally reunited. Unfortunately, this amount of time exposed to Cairns humidity meant that the case backings were mouldy. At first we were disappointed, but we soon realized our luck. After all, if they moulded in Cairns, they didn’t stand a chance further north! With all hands on board, and my partner helping, we varnished the 27 backing boards, to ensure humidity resistance to keep our precious saws safe for the next 10+ years in their final destinations.
The extra 9 months allowed me to design the inside of the display cases, with Barbara and me sometimes spending hours to get a sentence right. We also incorporated feedback from colleagues. The end result is 27 completely unique cases, each telling a story about the saws inside and the animals they belonged to.
With the first background being printed as I write this, I cannot wait to start sending these cases out. Make sure to look out for them in info centres, roadhouses, council offices and many more iconic locations on your next trip to FNQ!
We have heard it all too often, but what a year 2020 has been! Normally I get to spend about 3 months a year in the field, working with our amazing field assistants and Indigenous Rangers, visiting remote communities, and watching sunrises over the water. And while this lifestyle of intensive fieldwork in remote areas can be draining (and I am not going to lie about this, so many birthdays, weddings and other events from friends or family missed), it is also incredibly rewarding. On every field trip we run into unexpected challenges, see unexpected creatures and do what we love – conduct research with sharks and rays. It’s all pretty special.
2020 had almost none of this. While chocolate bananas melted in fire were dearly missed, we were also really lucky, as SARA is small enough to hibernate for a few months to survive lockdown. For most of the year, my students, collaborators and I, were working on SARA’s data sets – punching in data, identifying specimens, ensuring our GPS marks are correct, and matching images in our data base with individual animals. A lot of work was done in pyjamas, including two podcasts (see here and here).
While our intern and soon to be PhD student Nikki was stuck in New Zealand, where she maintained our sightings database from home, I managed to run 2 field trips, one to Kowanyama and the second one to Laura and the Lakefield (Rinyirru) National Park and spent a total of three weeks in the field.
In 2020 we also had to close our public call for field assistants. For most of the year, the Cape York Peninsula was a declared biosecurity zone with military checkpoints, managed by the Australian army and federal government. This arrangement was put in place to ensure that Covid would not enter vulnerable communities far away from the nearest hospital. And even when the Cape finally re-opened in July, we decided that we would only allow biologists from Far North Queensland to join our expeditions.
For our Kowanyama expedition, we were joined by dedicated biologists including James Donaldson from Northern Gulf NRM, Helen Penrose from Cape York NRM and Shane Ross from Shane Ross Photography. Fitzroy Lawrence from the Kowanyama Land and Sea Rangers brought out his whole ranger team to work with us in the field, which was truly fantastic. Working with a highly qualified field team who all have worked in Cape York before made this trip extremely productive.
For our second field trip in 2020 I was joined by the Laura Aboriginal Land and Sea Rangers under the lead of Susan Marsh. In 5 days, we drove 1200 km on dirt, sampled multiple spots in multiple rivers, generally worked 17 hrs a day and on our last day, Robert Ross from the Laura Rangers managed to catch a juvenile freshwater sawfish Pristis pristis on a handline, which we tagged, sampled and released. This was the first time a DNA sample was taken from this species on the east coast of Australia in about 15 years. While we had received submissions from the region before, many of them were without images and thus guided our sampling efforts, but are integrated in our citizen science database as ‘unconfirmed’ sightings, as we can only deduct the species from the location, but not confirm it.
Since about November, things have become busy again, and we have many projects in the pipeline for 2021. So stay tuned, follow us on social media (@SharksAndRaysAU), and most importantly stay safe.
Dr Wueringer takes a selfie with Sue Marsh and Samantha Lowdown from the Laura Rangers
Working up a large freshwater whipray Urogymnus dalyensis.
Working up a freshwater sawfish Pristis pristis in Lakefield (Rinyirru) National Park. The animal was quickly returned to the water after tagging and sampling.
in June 2020, Dr Jillian Morrison brake from Sharks4Kids invited Dr Wueringer to join a Sharks4Kids webinar. SARA and Sharks4Kids have been collaborators for a long time, and their work is always an inspiration for us at SARA.
Sawfish are very unique creatures, which sometimes poses problems when working with them. The saw of a large sawfish can easily be one the biggest safety hazard you will face during fieldwork. But these animals have another adaptation that has made it difficult to attach tags to them. As the animals often come into shallow waters they have the ability to loosen up their dorsal fins, allowing the fins to fall on the side.
When I worked with captive largetooth sawfish (locally in Australia known as freshwater sawfish) Pristis pristisa decade ago, I realized that in situations that I interpreted as likely stressful for the animals, their two dorsal fins would not stay upright anymore. In captivity these situations included water changes where the water levels in the tanks were first dropped and again raised.
In the wild, when juvenile sawfish venture into shallow waters of 20 cm depth or less, they could easily fall prey to terrestrial predators such as wedgetail eagles, which can reach a wingspan of 2.8m and are commonly encountered in the outback, and near rivers in Northern Australia. This means that it might not be stress, but the low water levels that caused the fins to drop!
The floppy fins pose some difficulties to attaching satellite tags to the dorsal fins of sawfish. The last time that sawfish in Australia, according to our knowledge, were tagged with satellite tags was in 2008 (Stevens et al. 2008). The authors tagged 7 sawfish (5 P. clavataand 2 P. zijsron) with SPOT tags that were bolted to the tip of the dorsal fins of sawfish. These tags are commonly used on sharks, and they can only connect to a satellite and send a location point when the dorsal fin breaks the surface. Additionally one pop-up satellite archival tag was put on another P. clavata. While the PAT tag provided depth data and popped off from the animal after 49 days within a few km of the tagging location, the SPOT tags only provided a handful of locations each (Stevens et al. 2008).
Dr Wueringer holds a towed SPOT-253 tag from Wildlife computers that has been attached to a sawfish. Note the first dorsal fin of the animal falling to the side.
The dwarf sawfish that has been tagged is ready to be released.
Since then, satellite tagging of sawfish has come a long way, and thankfully with the information provided by our American colleagues, our tagging has been more successful. They successfully trialled the methods of attaching towed tags to large smalltooth sawfish Pristis pectinata (for more info see Carlson et al. 2014, Guttridge et al. 2015, Papastamatiou et al. 2015) and shared their set up with us.
The next challenge for us was to find sawfish that were healthy (i.e. did not have their saws amputated) and large enough to tow the tags. In March 2019 it finally all came together and we were able to deploy two of our towed SPOT (smart position and temperature) tags! The first one was deployed on a 280cm long, and likely sexually mature female, Dwarf sawfish Pristis clavata and within 24 hrs the second tag was deployed on a 300cm long juvenile green sawfish Pristis zijsron.
One tag detached after about 3 months while the other one stopped sending location data 10 months after deployment. However, while the analysis and project is still ongoing, we can already see that the data we have received is amazing.
One of the most important outcomes of the tag deployments is that we were working with a commercial fisher on this expedition, who now knows how to deploy tags for us and is excited to do so. So we hope that the next tags won’t have to wait another 3 years to be deployed, as we all work together to find large sawfish.
This image shows a subset of the raw location fixes that we received from our tagged green sawfish. Each dot represents a location fix. Location fixes can have errors (including land based locations), especially when a tag does not surface long enough to send its data to the satellite.
This blog post was originally written for the Save Our Seas Foundation. you can access the original here.
Carlson, J. K., Gulak, S. J. B., Simpfendorfer, C. A., Grubbs, R. D., Romine, J. G. and Burgess, G. H. (2014). Movement patterns and habitat use of smalltooth sawfish,Pristis pectinata, determined using pop-up satellite archival tags. Aquatic Conserv. Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst.24, 104-117.
Guttridge, T. L., Gulak, S. J., Franks, B. R., Carlson, J. K., Gruber, S. H., Gledhill, K. S., Bond, M. E., Johnson, G. and Grubbs, R. D. (2015). Occurrence and habitat use of the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish Pristis pectinata in the Bahamas. J Fish Biol87, 1322-1341.
Papastamatiou, Y. P., Dean Grubbs, R., Imhoff, J. L., Gulak, S. J. B., Carlson, J. K. and Burgess, G. H. (2015). A subtropical embayment serves as essential habitat for sub-adults and adults of the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish. Global Ecology and Conservation3, 764-775.
Stevens, J. D., McAuley, R. B., Simpfendorfer, C. A. and Pillans, R. D. (2008). Spatial distribution and habitat utilisation of sawfish (Pristis spp) in relation to fishing in northern Australia. 26.