Wrapping up 2018

Wrapping up 2018

SARA was founded with the goal to contribute to elasmobranch science in Queensland and Australia, while also working with people from all walks of life. Documenting the status quo through data collection is an important duty of science. But the people that we meet in the field, who ultimately decide whether they release an accidentally captured sawfish alive, don’t read scientific papers.

SARA is a group effort and we could not do without the volunteer Field Assistants who join us. I hope that you all realize that without you, there would be hardly any sawfish research happening in Queensland. Not just because lack of people power, but also because there is simply no government funded sawfish fieldwork happening in Queensland yet (or during the last 9 years, for that matter). This is a sad situation for these EPBC Act listed species, which are slowly falling through the cracks here. This is what we are changing, together with all the people who join us. No pressure no diamonds.

Our philosophy at SARA is that if we do not involve locals, then conservation won’t stand a chance in the long term. And excitedly, our work with Indigenous Ranger groups is expanding. In early 2018 I had the pleasure, for a joint project with the University of Queensland, funded by Rio Tinto Aluminium, to introduce all of the Mapoon Land and Sea Rangers to sawfish research. After a day of inductions, we spent close to a week sampling for sawfish. We did not catch a sawfish, but the community involvement that this expedition has created, assures me that sawfish are in good hands in this region. A community forum was held and many people told me that they had no idea how endangered sawfish were. When I returned to Old Mapoon later that year, some locals told me that they now release sawfish alive if they catch one. Later on in the year, the dedication of these Indigenous rangers enabled our collaborators from UQ to tag four juvenile green sawfish near Mapoon.

The Kowanyama Land and Sea Rangers joined us in the field again this year, and helped us tag and release a juvenile bull shark. The expedition was a dream come true, and also some of the hardest fieldwork I have ever done. After several days of sampling (=getting up at 2 in the morning, sampling, nap, and sampling again until late at night), and several tags detaching early, we ended up actively tracking a juvenile sawfish for 30 hr, followed by 11 hrs of sleep. Happy sleep, I may add. You can read more about this expedition here.

Next year we will run the first joint expedition with the Laura Land and Sea Rangers, who have been very keen to work with us since 2016. Their country is nothing short of spectacular, and probably contains the highest density of sawfish rock artin Australia, which may even be a reflection of historic abundances?! How much these hard working rangers care about sawfish is already visible in their detailed submissions, where TO’s (Traditional Owners of the Land) make sure they note things like the shape of the caudal fin as well as the teeth of a sawfish before releasing it safely.

After years of personally working with a handful of commercial fishers, this part of our work is now expanding as well. The larger connection got kicked off in 2016, when I gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Gulf Fisher Associationin Karumba. With the aid of a grant from the Shark Conservation Fund we are currently testing different sawfish release methods. These include a hand tool that a small group of fishers is using and that could make all the difference. Next year, we will be holding several sawfish release workshops, with the aim to find out which methods work best for the different fishers, with the aim of making these methods available to all of them. Currently there are 3 workshops planned for 2019, but this number might increase.

There are loud voices in the conservation sector wanting to phase out gill net fisheries in Queensland. The WWF for example, has bought fishing licences from commercial fishers and laid them dormant. While the replacement of destructive methods with less harmful methods needs to continue globally, we also need to find ways of making gillnet fisheries less harmful for as long as they continue. As a first world nation, Australia has a responsibility in this. Shutting down our own fisheries means exporting our problems, and importing fish from developing nations, where gillnets are still the predominant fishing gear, simply cannot be the solution. When considering buying back licences and thus shutting down gill net fisheries in the Gulf of Carpentaria, it is also important to consider what effect this could have. The whole of Queensland’s coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, which measures around 1200 km is currently patrolled by four Fisheries Officers from QDAF. If the existing fisheries within this area were shut down, it would be an open invitation for illegal fishing, which cannot be regulated or even assessed with the current methods/budget.

In 2018 we finally received the first ever support from the Queensland Government, through an Engaging Science Grant. This funding allowed us to create a sawfish event at the Cairns Museum, finalize our Food Web Game and talk to around 260 school kids in Far North Queensland and the Cape York Region, including during National Science Week. Now, this number appears vanishingly small compared to what our collaborators from Sharks4Kids are doing (We love their work and that they joined us on our school tour!), but most of the kids we spoke with, and played our food web game with, were Indigenous and had seen a sawfish in the wild, which is super exciting. The Normanton State School was so inspired that their kids will do a project on the life cycle of freshwater sawfish next term. We cannot wait to see the results! You can read more about the school visits here.

With all the data collection going on at SARA, data analysis and publication is becoming an important topic. Mid 2018 we were lucky enough to welcome Grace McNicholas, a MSc student from the University of York in Cairns. Grace spent a great deal of time working on our database and analysing some of our data, and even joined us in the field. She has since returned home and is working on the first paper to come out of our field data.

In late 2018 we also welcomed Jess Hudgins, a MSc/PhD candidate from Heriot-Watt University from Scotland, who is trying to get a grip on historic and current sawfish distributions in Queensland and maybe even Australia. As her project is kicking off, you can find her on the SARA Facebook page through her #ThrowbackThursday posts on historic sawfish captures. Her data analysis already sheds light on the historic perceptions of these animals, which likely contributed to their decline.

In August 2018, we also welcomed Annmarie Fearing, a MSc student from the lab of Dr Nicole Phillips from the University of Mississippi in Cairns. An event in the Cairns Museum during National Science Week kicked off SARA’s involvement in the collection of historic DNA from sawfish rostra. Annmarie’s analysis if these DNA samples will shed light on when sawfish populations decreased in genetic diversity globally. You can read their latest project updates here.

We are now doing eDNA! In 2018, we finally commenced our collaboration with Madie Cooper and Colin Simpfendorfer from JCU Townsville, to collect environmental DNA of sawfish. Every organism swimming in water can be detected through the DNA it gives off. This method is in its infancy, but it can only get more detailed and so we are very excited to be helping with sample collection.

In Queensland, sawfish are protected under the Fisheries Act of 1994, which also makes the possession of sawfish body parts without a permit illegal. Because of this, some people decided to donate not only DNA samples but whole saws to us. In 2019 SARA will start an initiative that will see these saws being lent to other institutions (tourist info centres, local museums, etc), without the need for them to get a permit. We intend to create displays with the saws informing people of the status of sawfish and where to report them. If you have any experience in creating something like this or know how we could fund it, please get in touch!

Lastly we would like to thank Julia Constance, who is now looking after our Instagram. She is doing an awesome job and we could not do without her!

In order to run our fieldwork, and maintain our presence in the field, which appears to make a large difference for sawfish in Queensland, we require Volunteer Field Assistants to join us. Currently the numbers of people joining us are small, which is likely due to us not reaching enough people. If you have ideas for how we can reach more people, get in touch! If you are aware of groups where we can post about our expedition openings or if you can think of other ways of reaching the right people, please let us know. Every single person makes a difference.

I would also like to thank our research supporters, including the Save Our Seas Foundation, the Shark Conservation Fund and starting in 2019, Seaworld Australia. Our local supporters in Cairns are also very important to us, as we know that our car, boat and trailer are in good hands. Thank you Aussie Marine, Warpac Trailers and KW Auto!!


A quick outlook for 2019:

  • Our stable isotope project is slowly moving forward, and the first samples have been analysed. The project still requires a dedicated student for it!
  • We have heaps of other projects listed online, go check them out!
  • In 2019 we will be expanding our work to the east coast of Queensland (permit pending). As sawfish populations have never been assessed in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, this work surely is important.


So stay tuned, join our newsletter and find us on social media! @SharksAndRaysAU



Playing the food web game

Playing the food web game

In early November 2018, Sharks4Kids and Sharks And Rays Australia embarked on a joint mission to visit schools around Far North Queensland to talk to the kids about sawfish. Throughout the year, we had finalised developing our ‘North Australian Food Web Game’ and as part of fieldtrips we had already visited the Kowanyama, Old Mapoon and Normanton State Schools. The visits to Kowanyama and Old Mapoon were our second time in these schools, and some of the kids remembered us and how to tag fish, which is fantastic news.

The aim of the school visits is to introduce our work, and the importance of sharks and rays in the local ecosystems, to the kids. We often visit state schools and aim for schools that are off the beaten track. The local Indigenous children often spend time ‘on country’ with their families, often hunting and fishing. Some of their parents work for the local Indigenous ranger groups. But sometimes these parts of their lives are separated from what they learn in school, and so we aim to connect what they see in their free time with ‘boring science’.

I am proud to stand in front of all these little girls and boys as a female scientist. Fieldwork oriented elasmobranch science is clearly a male dominated field, and so every woman in this field is also a #WomenInSTEM ambassador for #GirlsInSTEM. This year, I had 11 other biologists join me on the school visits, and each one of them brought in their own perspectives and knowledge.

For the last visits in November, Paddy Burke, who is currently doing his PhD at Macquarie University, joined me as the representative of Sharks4Kids. Over the duration of one week, we visited schools in Cooktown, Laura, Wonga Beach and Kuranda. Sadly, the Hopevale and Yarrabah state schools did not have time for us. The children that we met were between 4 to 16 years old. In total we spoke to and played the game with 262 students this year. Many of these kids would have never had a chance of meeting scientists before. For example, as the Principal of Laura State School told us, their little town currently sits in the lowest 2% of the socio-economic index of Australia.

Just like, us, the kids love these visits and so do the teachers. Our school visit to the Normanton State School has led to a collaboration in order to develop materials of the life cycle of the freshwater sawfish. During the first term of 2019, the kids will draw these life history stages. The materials will be available on our page, so stay tuned!

This work was supported by the Queensland Government’s Engaging Science Grant, which also allowed us to develop our ‘North Australian Food Web Game’. You can download the game here. It contains colouring in sheets and fun facts of many animals that are found in the rivers of Northern Australia.

The kids from the Laura State School present their coloured in animals from the food web game, together with Paddy from Sharks4Kids and Barbara from SARA

The kids at Wonga Beach State school learn about our research with sharks and rays, including sawfish.

Paddy from Sharks4Kids explains the differences in the four sawfish species that are found in the waters of Northern Australia

A girl from Wonga Beach colours in a saltwater crocodile. Each sheet has facts about the animal on it

During our trip, we were also able to DNA sample some of the saws in private collections

This is my favourite coloured in sheet from our food web game! Some of the kids get really creative while drawing, as visible on this sheet coloured in by a 4-year-old girl from Laura

Accelerometer tags on a sawfishes’ saw

Accelerometer tags on a sawfishes’ saw


We were out in the waters of the Mitchell River, near the Indigenous community of Kowanyama. Every day we would wake at 3am ready for a 4am start of setting nets on the river. After a 7hr sampling session, we’d eat and rest and then run another sampling session in the evening, either hand-lining for freshwater whiprays (last year we had also caught a saw-less sawfish like this), or setting more nets.

The first few days we were only catching small bull sharks, which is fairly stressful when gill netting. Sharks don’t do well in gill nets, but in this part of the river, which is freshwater, many of the sharks we had caught over the last three years had a fungus infection visible on their skin. This meant that we had to be even faster releasing them, otherwise they would struggle.

One morning, we had caught multiple juvenile bull sharks in one net, so many in fact that we were continuously checking the net to get them all out so that we could pull the net without injuring them. When the net was finally retrieved, and we arrived back at the camp, we were greeted by a very angry couple waving paperwork at us (in the middle of nowhere) shouting that they had booked this particular camping spot where we had set up our camp. As we did not want to get in trouble with anyone, and our booking had been made by the local rangers who were on weekend break, we had to move. The move took about 3 hrs, and our new camping spot, the only one providing a safe entrance to our boat, also displayed a stark reminder of the presence of saltwater crocodiles (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: Upon assessment of our second camping spot we found this footprint of a saltwater crocodile Crocodylus porosus. Saltwater crocs can be quite dangerous to humans and a colleague from Australia Zoo estimated the owner of this footprint to be over 5m long. Barbara’s foot is a size 38 European. However, during our time at the camp spot this crocodile would have not been able to lift itself up the steep riverbank because of low tides.

After an afternoon nap, everything changed. We all agreed that our new camping spot was better than the old one, and started over. We became friends with our neighbours. There were no more bull sharks in the net, but sawfish! And we were finally able to deploy our custom-built tags. These tags combine an accelerometer, which records the movement of the rostrum in 3D space, with temperature, light and pressure sensors, in a casing that allows the tags to be mounted on the base of a sawfishes’ rostrum. An acoustic tag allows active tracking of the animal and a VHF tag allows us to find the tag once it has detached.

There are many release mechanism for tags in saltwater and they generally involve corrosion. In freshwater this does not work and so we tested our own ideas of dissolvable string. With the ‘perfect’ lab-tested configuration, the first tag detached upon release of the animal (2 mins into a 3 day deployment). We modified the set up, and the second and third tag released after about 4 hrs. The fourth tag finally stayed on (figures 2,3 and 4).

Fig 2: The first accelerometer tag is attached to the saw of a juvenile freshwater sawfish Pristis pristis.

Fig 4: A happy SARA team is ready to release this freshwater sawfish, Pristis pristis, with its tag attached.

With a team of four, and three people required on the boat for tracking, it was difficult to take turns going on land, relaxing and preparing food. After close to 30 hrs of tracking the sawfish, with only 3 hrs of sleep, we recovered the tag. Having worked with sawfish for 13 years, this included one of my most memorable moments of fieldwork. As the tag had not been moving for a while, we decided to head to the side of the river where it was located. In order to not scare the sawfish, I beached the boat further upstream, got out and moved to the high bank under which the tag was pinging. The water was clear and I could see the little sawfish with our tag attached to its rostrum hunting baitfish.

One of our field assistants, Sarah, was so impressed by what she had experienced on the expedition that she even ended up with a tattoo of a sawfish (figure 5). Clearly these animals are not only of cultural importance to Indigenous Australians, but to all of us.


Fig 5: Our volunteer field assistant Sarah O’Hea Miller turned her experiences of the expedition into a permanent memory in the shape of a sawfish tattoo.

This blog post was written by Barbara for the Save Our Seas Foundation. You can access the original here. 

Queensland and it’s sawfishes. by Nicolas Lubitz & Barbara Wueringer

Queensland and it’s sawfishes. by Nicolas Lubitz & Barbara Wueringer

written by Nicolas Lublitz and Barbara Wueringer

Sawfish are the stuff of legends: Animals that can grow up to 7 m long and have an extended rostrum (the ‘saw’) loaded with teeth. Old newspaper articles have described them as monsters that lurk in our rivers and oceans and are just waiting to attack people. Quite the opposite is true, as sawfish use their „saw“ skillfully in order to stun and manipulate their fishy prey, not caring for us humans. They are magnificent animals, no doubt.

Anecdotal reports claim that sawfish used to be so plentiful that people in Sudan once used their rostra as fence posts. Additionally, a study from Lake Nicaragua estimated that between 1970 and 1975 around 60,000 – 100,000 animals were caught in the lake by commercial fishers. This was once thought to be their largest population. A survey in 1992 could not find traces of a single individual in the lake.

Today, five extant species are recognized. All are either listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered under the criteria of the IUCN, making sawfishes the most endangered of all the sharks and rays in the world. Four out of those five species can be found in Queensland waters, which are thought to be home to some of their last important populations in the world. With significant global declines for all species, the question arises, if the rivers and coastlines of Queensland are still a stronghold for these animals?

First, we need to engage in a debate about our baseline – how abundant was the species in the past? This search can turn philosophical really quickly. How do we determine a healthy population? What levels do we want the population to return to? Does it need to return to pre-human influence levels or is it enough to keep the population at a level where it can somewhat perform its ecological function? Or is exploitation more important than conservation?

Secondly, we need to determine how much the population of sawfish have declined in Queensland. To answer this, sawfish capture data from the Queensland Shark Control Program (QSCP) was analysed. This program started in 1962 and aims to protect swimmers/surfers from potentially dangerous sharks by utilizing gillnets and baited drum lines. Although no scientific evidence exists that the program actually works, it has been in place for decades.

The data shows that between 1962 and 2016, 1450 sawfish were captured,with 99% of captures occurring in the four most northern areas of Queensland’s East Coast, suggesting the existence of critical habitat. Most animals were caught in the nets and not on drum lines.

An overall decreasing trend in catch rates was observed for two locations where standardized catches could be calculated. However, standardized catch rates from the data set are likely underestimating abundances, as the nets were set up to 500m away from the coast, in deep waters where they often did not reach the bottom. Most sawfish captures occurred near the bottom of the nets.  

The facts of this data set make firm conclusions on abundance declines difficult, although it is apparent that the declines have been statistically significant. We need to devote more resources to better understand population trends in Queensland’s sawfishes.


You can access the publication on sawfish catches in the Queensland Shark Control Program here.

This blog post was originally written for the Save Our Seas Foundation. Access the original blog here. 

Standardized catch rates for sawfish (fam. pristidae) in gill nets in two separate locations of the Queensland Shark Control Program, 1962 – 2016. Red stars indicate when fishing began and ceased in the respective location.