In Australia, we have a responsibility to look after our four species of sawfish. Sawfish are the most endangered of all sharks and rays globally. Northern Australia is the last global stronghold for four out of five species.
For this year’s International Sawfish Day, some major media outlets became interested in Australian sawfish. These animals are receiving a lot of media attention recently, and with this comes a network of opinions and agendas. Because of these two recent articles on ABC and in the Guardian Australia, which present and also intermingle a lot of different view points, I would like to elucidate the direction of Sharks And Rays Australia in this field.
For the last 5 years, under my lead, SARA has worked with sawfish in Far North Queensland, the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Cape York Peninsula. Our philosophy for sawfish research and conservation is that ‘it takes more than a village’ to bring sawfish numbers back and we need everyone involved. Now, if you are one of the fishers who say that you still see plenty of them, I might ask you to take a look at our species ID flyer. Right now, we are mainly concerned with the three Pristis species, which take 8-10 years to become sexually mature. Anoxypristis (narrow sawfish, slimy’s) mature after 3 years and are thus still found in higher numbers. But even Anoxypristis is in trouble. In 2016 we found fins from this species on a drying rack in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and in 2018 we had a sighting of a sawless individual from the east coast submitted to us. If you regularly see large numbers of the other species, please report them to us!
In Australia, sawfish are federally protected on the EPBC Act and in Queensland they are also protected under the Fisheries Act, which means that from a legislative perspective, they are well covered. But once you spend time in remote regions, talking and working with station managers, Indigenous Rangers and fishermen, a whole different picture emerges. Everyone has a story to tell, of how they used to catch ‘really big ones’, but haven’t seen a single animal in 10-15 years. And everyone has someone else to blame for this.
The reality is that every single person who took a sawfish saw as a trophy contributed to the species’ declines. But while pointing the finger only creates scapegoats, anger and an outlet, it does not help sawfish. These animals continue to fall through the cracks. Instead of judging the past it is more helpful to take responsibility and change the future.
And in this, everyone has a role to play:
- Our regular visits to schools have led to the collaborative development of materials. The Normanton State School has taken the life cycle up in its curriculum, and last time we visited they baked a sawfish shaped cake. Love your work!
- We also work with commercial fishers. So far, I have only collaborated with a handful of fishers, but these guys are now putting tags on sawfish for us and releasing them alive. They are happy to go out of their way to release a 4m sawfish, even when working by themselves. Needless to say, this can be very dangerous as sawfish use their saw to defend themselves and such a large animal can hurt people.
- We are always on the hunt for sawfish sighting submissions from the general public and recreational fishers. The old records that you have at home are important for sawfish conservation. We do not judge people who are in the possession of old saws, it is pretty clear that everyone used to take them as trophies. But it is important that this practise stops, as most animals will not survive this illegal procedure and their saw is much more important then as a dust collector. Your sawfish sighting submissions have already allowed us to show that the historic range of freshwater sawfish was larger than previously assumed, as they occurred near Brisbane.
- Our field assistants are not shy to join us on our field trips and do the hard work. Working in remote regions, without the daily pleasantries of hot showers, air condition and high speed internet, and contributing financially to make those expeditions happen, these young adults are my heros. They might disappear back into a different world after the expedition, but they now understand what’s at stake.
- We also work with Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger groups. With every group we have different agreements, and some are more hands-on in helping us than others. But all of them matter, and sawfish matter to them, as you can see in this blog post.
- We also work with the public aquarium industry, who have sponsored some of our tags and are spreading the word for sawfish through their educational displays.
What about net free zones? Shall we close down all gill net fisheries? I personally think that net-free zones are only a solution in close vicinity of towns with large recreational fishing communities, and active fisheries enforcement. Closing down fisheries is not a solution, as it only exports the problem. Gill nets are used everywhere around the world, and in Australia we can document and invent methods of making these fisheries sustainable when it comes to sawfish by-catch.
In the remote areas that we work in, the displacement of fishers would mean that huge stretches of coastline will receive minimal attention in terms of patrolling and enforcement. The coastline of the Queensland Gulf of Carpentaria alone is about 1200 km long. This could create an open field for foreign fishing vessels, with no quotas or indications of catch and by-catch sizes or management strategies.
The area we work in covers about 2/3 the size of Germany, but it is only inhabited by 28,000 people. Germany, on the other hand, is inhabited by over 82 million people. In such remote areas, it is easy for foreign vessels to enter Australian waters undetected. Remember the vessel full of illegal immigrants that arrived in the Daintree, north of Cairns? This vessel crossed at least 800 km of Australian waters undetected before reaching the coastline.
The Australian fishermen and fisherwomen that I have met have an understanding of how their work changes the environment they work in. They are protective of their industry, that’s for sure, but they are also willing to adopt release practises that are safe and cause minimal harm to the animals. Many of them have developed great methods to release sawfish unharmed, and one of our ongoing projects is to document these methods, with the aim of making them available to every fisher. Without their help, the task of collecting data on Queensland’s sawfish populations is almost impossible. However, individuals who kill sawfish, like the recent deaths in Wujunga or this fisher, who was later found in possession of 63 illegal saws, can give a whole fishery a bad name.
My paper on the sawfish by-catches in the Queensland Shark Control Program indicates that sawfish survive the initial capture in a gill net. Anybody who has caught sawfish in this way, including myself, can confirm that as long as the animals’ gills are not wrapped up they can survive the capture. The key threatening process for sawfish is thus not the capture but the release. It is imperative for the survival of these species, that the animals are released alive, quickly and with minimal damage. Many fishers have adopted methods to avoid catching sawfish (like avoiding certain areas in the ecosystems they work in, or checking their nets very often), and many of them are aware of environmental conditions that will increase sawfish captures. These factors need to be documented in order to create best practise standards across fisheries. Ultimately, I would like to see a Sawfish Sustainability Certification for our Australian fisheries that interact with these animals, but this would require large-scale collaborations between governmental agencies, the conservation sector and fisheries.
Please think about how you fit into sawfish conservation and what you can do to protect these animals, instead of pointing the finger at other people. For example, if you live in an Australian city, you could become a sawfish ambassador and visit schools, hold outreach events and bring the memories of these animals back into people’s minds. This is hard work, but it is also more effective than signing a petition or liking a sawfish conservation post. You could also crochet us a sawfish to give to a remote school, or you could join us in the field. We need more sawfish heros.
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