My Six-Month Internship: Year Five

My Six-Month Internship: Year Five

by Nikki Biskis

Sometimes I think back to that day in Melbourne where I called Barbara at Sharks And Rays Australia to ask what she had. We had an honest conversation. I was trying to break into the field of ecology, but I couldn’t afford more student loans. I’d work for free, as long as I had to, until I had the experience and papers I needed to get into a program. I just finished one internship down here and was not ready to go back to the States. The plan was to give trophy rostra another life, through display cases aiming to at educate fishers. It would take six to nine months, and I would work on other datasets as an intern with SARA.

Fast forward to three years later, and I was beginning my PhD, with the plan of assessing sawfish ecology through reported sightings, historic records, and acoustic tracking. Over the last two years, I’d seen rostra and photographs – hundreds and hundreds of each – but now I finally got to head into the field and see these animals in the wild! With the first round of display cases finally built, Barbara and I began to distribute them on our way to field sites in Far North Queensland. They’d continue to engage the community long after we were gone.

Except I didn’t see a live sawfish, not for a long time. But the communities did. The cases became a talking point at the local roadhouses and information centres. One day I got an email from Lockhart River saying that they’d seen our case in Coen – could they have one too? More importantly, the Land and Sea Ranger stations jumped on board, all nine of which are involved in ongoing field surveys for sawfish on Country, reporting sightings back year-round. What started as a short project was turning into a strong community, in ways that I had not anticipated.

Since the first round of deliveries, we branched out to include more populated areas down south. These areas report a higher percentage of dead or saw-less sawfish, highlighting critical locations for outreach. We led SARA’s first Mackay field expedition in Nov 2021, and as with the rest of my journey, the Display Cases came with us. Large organisations like Australia Zoo and the Kingfisher Bay resort on K’Gari (Fraser Island) also got involved. In May of this year, the first confirmed sawfish sighting was reported off K’Gari in 60 years.

The display project wrapped up in September, which was bittersweet. However, the conversation continues, not just locally, but internationally as well. Both Barbara and I presented research at Sharks International in Valencia, in October. These presentations highlighted findings from the rostrum collection (1), and our citizen science database (2), showing that the original mission is a reality. These rostra are more than just old trophies – they have enormous potential to protect the animals we have left.

As for me, I am officially a confirmed PhD candidate as of this month. It seems awfully fitting that I sent out one of our last remaining cases to Mackay the day before my confirmation seminar. My thesis has shifted away from tagging back to where it all began – rostra. I got to complete a morphometric analysis, two years in the works, which is due to be submitted as a publication early this year (3). The sightings chapter is currently being analysed, and in addition to Sharks International, I presented preliminary findings at the annual conference of the Australian Society of Fish Biology in Gold Coast in November (4). Rostra are also a critical part of Chapters 3 and 4, looking at tooth microchemistry to determine provenance, and historic records.

In the end it was clearly not a one-year project, rather, these display cases heralded my entry into the sawfish world. I cannot thank Save Our Seas enough for the ongoing adjustments to grant terms during Covid, supporting a project that has brought together so many people to look after sawfish. And of course, Sharks And Rays Australia (read: Barbara) for the continued support and training as I navigate this PhD, and taking a chance on me in the first place.

Major funding for the Display Case Project, Citizen Science Database and our Sawfish Spotter’s t-shirts was provided by the Queensland’s Chief Scientist’s Advanced Queensland Citizen Science Initiative. This project was also supported by a Small Grant from Save Our Sea Foundation. Our field work for 2020 and 2022 was funded by: Sea World Research and Rescue Foundation Inc., Great Barrier Reef Foundation, Queensland Government Community Sustainability Action Grants.

References:

  1. Wueringer, BE, Biskis, VN & Pinkus, GA. 2022. Impact of trophy collection and commercial fisheries on sawfishes in Queensland, Australia. Endangered Species Research. In print.
  2. Biskis, VN, Townsend, KA, McDavitt, MT & Wueringer, BE. Analysis of current species ranges, hotspots, and interaction with regions of high fishing pressure in Queensland (in prep)
  3. Biskis, VN, Wueringer, BE, Holmes, BJ, & Townsend, KA. Using rostral morphometrics to access size class info from historic sawfish specimens (in prep)
  4. Biskis, VN, Townsend, KA, McDavitt, MT & BE Wueringer (2022) Sawfish spotters fill data gaps critical for sawfish protections in Queensland, Australia (Abstract)

Thank you to all participating display locations:

  • Albatross Bay Resort, Weipa, QLD
  • Archer River Roadhouse, Archer River, QLD
  • Australia Zoo, Beerwah, QLD
  • Bamaga Tavern, Bamaga, QLD
  • Barra Jacks, Rockhampton, QLD
  • Barramundi Discovery Centre, Karumba, QLD
  • Burdekin Gateway Visitor Information Centre, Home Hill, QLD
  • Burdekin Visitor Information Centre, Ayr, QLD
  • Burke and Wills Roadhouse, Four Ways, QLD
  • Burketown Information Centre, Burketown, QLD
  • C4 (Community for Coastal Cassowary Conservation), Mission Beach, QLD
  • Cape York Peninsula Lodge, Bamaga, QLD
  • Capricorn Coast Information Centre, Yeppoon, QLD
  • Cardwell Rainforest and Reef Visitor Centre, Cardwell, QLD
  • Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel, Chillagoe, QLD
  • Chillagoe Hub Information Centre, Chillagoe, QLD
  • Cloncurry Unearthed Visitor Information Centre & Museum, Cloncurry, QLD
  • Croydon Club Hotel, Croydon, QLD
  • Daintree Discovery Centre, Cow Bay, QLD
  • Daydream Island, Whitsundays, QLD
  • Eimeo Pub, Mackay, QLD
  • Exchange Hotel, Coen, QLD
  • Gregory Downs Hotel, Gregory, QLD
  • Gympie Bones Museum, Gympie, QLD
  • Hann River Roadhouse, Laura, QLD
  • Hemingway’s Brewery – Cairns & Port Douglas, QLD
  • Heron Island Research Station, Heron Island, QLD
  • Historic Village Herberton, Herberton, QLD
  • Hope Vale Ranger Station, Hope Vale, QLD
  • Kingfisher Bay Resort, K’gari, QLD
  • Koumala Hotel, Koumala, QLD
  • Kowanyama PBC, Kowanyama, QLD
  • Kowanyama Ranger Station, Kowanyama, QLD
  • Kuranda Visitor Information Centre, Kuranda, QLD
  • Lakeland Hotel Motel, Lakeland, QLD
  • Lakeland Roadhouse, Lakeland, QLD
  • Laura Roadhouse, Laura, QLD
  • Mackay Marina, Mackay, QLD
  • Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council, Mapoon, QLD
  • Moreton Bay Research Station, Dunwich, QLD
  • Moreton Telegraph Station, Wenlock, QLD
  • Mornington Island Arts Centre, Mornington Island, QLD
  • Mornington Island State School, Mornington Island, QLD
  • Musgrave Roadhouse, Yarraden, QLD
  • Nature’s Powerhouse (Cooktown Visitor Information Centre), Cooktown, QLD
  • Normanton Library and Information Centre, Normanton, QLD
  • Northern Gulf NRM Office, Georgetown, QLD
  • Orpheus Island Research Station, Orpheus Island, QLD
  • Palmer River Roadhouse, Lakeland, QLD
  • Plumtree Store, Stanage, QLD
  • Pormpuraaw Art & Culture Centre, Pormpuraaw, QLD
  • Pormpuraaw Council Office, Pormpuraaw, QLD
  • Port Stewart Ranger Station, Port Stewart, QLD
  • Purple Pub, Normanton, QLD
  • Reef Teach, Cairns, QLD
  • Rinyirru Ranger Base, Rinyirru National Park, QLD
  • Rodney Fox Shark Museum, Mile End, SA
  • Sea Life Aquarium – Sunshine Coast, QLD
  • Sea Link Queensland, Townsville, QLD
  • Sea World, Gold Coast, QLD
  • Secret Spot Tackle Shop, Yeppoon, QLD
  • Sunset Tavern, Karumba, QLD
  • The Greenhoose, Lockhart River, QLD
  • Winton Hotel, Winton, QLD

 

A current map of display locations in Queensland.

K’gari represents the southern limit in QLD for sawfishes confirmed with photographs in the SARA database so far. Image by Veronika Biskis. 

After meeting the Yuwi Rangers in Mackay this November, we were introduced to another location at the Eimeo Hotel, reaching people where sawfishes were historically caught quite frequently. Image by Veronika Biskis

A case in Musgrave Roadhouse, halfway up to the tip to Cape York. This is the only stop for fuel or food for 100 km when traveling north. Image by Veronika Biskis. 

Veronika Biskis and Wayne Phillips, Head of Marine Sciences for Sea World Gold Coast on arrival of their sawfish display case, November 2021.  Funding from the Save Our Seas foundation many deliveries could be made in person, increasing engagement and excitement around receiving each display. Image by Patrick Gallagher

People can submit both current and historic sightings to the SARA website, which has now received over 1200 submissions. This photograph from Toogoom, QLD, 1890 is the oldest on record in Australia.

Veronika Biskis and Dr Barbara Wueringer (SARA) with Sue Marsh (Laura Rangers) hold plush sawfish knitted by someone in the community.

Daniela Matteus-Holland and Veronika Biskis of SARA take measurements from a rostrum in the collection. Measurements are used to estimate total length and age of the animal at death using morphometrics. Image by Russel Hosp

A pile of saws awaiting sampling. Rostra are continuously donated to SARA through a collaboration with Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Interns and volunteers wanted

Sharks And Rays Australia (SARA) is seeking to fill the following positions:

  • One social media intern, to look after our facebook page. You will support our team in science communication. You will help us communicate, our work, what is happening at SARA and news from the world of sharks, rays and above all sawfishes. Start date January 2023.Our social media interns will be responsible for content creation for one of our three platforms (@SharksAndRaysAU on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), thus supporting our existing science and social media team. Content sourcing, and creating content from existing materials will also fall in the intern’s responsibilities. Creation of ads is outside of the scope of this role.
  • One video editor / content creator. You will help us create informative short videos from clips that we have filmed during our work. Start date January 2023.
  • Two research / conservation volunteers. Start date January 2023. As volunteers, you will help us with various research/ conservation related tasks. The tasks you will be helping with depend on your location. For example, if Cairns-based you will be helping us with DNA sampling of saws, shipments of display cases. If based somewhere else, you will help with online data collection of historic sawfish sightings, and data entry from fieldwork.

Our core values and mission:  At SARA we believe that long-term conservation goals can only be achieved if they are based on sound science, public outreach and an inclusive model of implementation, i.e. working with local stakeholders. SARA aims to not just produce science in the ‘ivory tower’ but to involve the general public in our sawfish and shark research expeditions. In many ways, it is ultimately up to local communities to look after the incredible species that share the natural world with us.

Our current work:  At SARA, we like to think outside the box. Our current main study species, sawfish, are the most endangered of all sharks and rays globally, but they are much more than that. These large animals (up to 7m length) are culturally important to many Indigenous groups, and they were once amongst the most abundant large predators in tropical coastal, inshore and freshwater regions of our planet. Sitting somewhere between charismatic and dangerous megafauna, the work done by our principal scientist, collaborators, students, field assistants, interns, and volunteers ensures that these animals don’t quietly go extinct, and will remain a vital part of Northern Australia’s ecosystems.

Our creative, outcome-oriented, and dynamic work environment allows the creation and implementation of real-world conservation concepts that unite people with a common idea and goal.

  • SARA is currently the only Australian organisation that allows paying field assistants to participate in shark and ray research expeditions, and gain hands-on research experience. Field work is led by our scientists and conducted in close collaboration with Aboriginal Land and Sea Rangers, and sometimes with commercial fishers, thus uniting all of us during intensive tagging workups of large animals.
  • Our citizen science project turns members of the public into sawfish spotters by turning old trophy saws into messengers for conservation. Cases inform the public about sawfish biology, possible threats, and safe release methods. Our sawfish display cases and info boards can be seen at 60 locations (and growing) across Queensland.

Our social media interns will be responsible for content creation for one of our three platforms (@SharksAndRaysAU on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), thus supporting our existing science and social media team. Content sourcing, and creating content from existing materials will also fall in the intern’s responsibilities. Creation of ads is outside of the scope of this role.

These positions are unpaid, as we currently do not have funding for them. However, in order to gain understanding of the work that we do, you will very likely be able to join one of our field trips in 2023 at a discount (details to be worked out individually). Your internship will also result in a letter of recommendation from our Principal Scientist and Director. Additional perks include: SARA merchandise and opportunity to travel to sharky events.

If interested please send a cover letter and CV to hello@saw.fish attn: Dr Barbara Wueringer. The cover letter should contain the following information:

  • Statement of interest: Why are you interested in this position?
  • Which intern position you are interested in
  • Availability (e.g. one semester, 1 year)
  • Number of hours per week you would like to commit to
  • Where you are based
  • Social media intern only: Your strategy to find info for creating exciting posts. 2-3 sample posts

Please note that where you are based will not affect our decision.

A saw returned

A saw returned

A saw returned

In March 2022 Barbara received a message from a friend. He had found an old sawfish saw in a local op shop in Cairns, and wanted her to know about it. As it turned out the saw was quite special, and the friend ended up donating the saw to SARA for research and education.

When he dropped the saw off, he told Barbara that Lisa Michl, the Artistic Director of UMI Arts in Cairns and a Kokoberrin woman from the Gulf of Carpentaria, and Shaun Edwards, a Kokoberrin artist, had identified the artwork on the saw as being from the Dick Roughsey era from Mornington Island.

Mornington Island is part of the Wellesley Island Group, in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. The donation of the saw happened at a time when Barbara was in touch with the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, which maintains Aboriginal Land and Sea Ranger groups in Normanton, Burketown (Gangalidda Garawa Rangers) and the Wellesley Island rangers on Mornington Island. Barbara forwarded images of the saw and received confirmation that the saw was likely painted by Dick Roughsey or his son.

As the contact was established, Barbara met Thomas Wilson, the senior head ranger of the Wellesley Island Aboriginal Land and Sea rangers from Mornington Island, in Cairns. Thomas was very happy to receive the saw, and said that it would be displayed in the local art centre on Mornington Island. He was also worried about sawfish, as locally on Mornington Island they are hardly ever seen anymore. They used to be quite common until about 20 years ago.

Everyone involved was really happy about the outcome. Thomas Wilson said that there are not many saws around anymore that are painted in this particular traditional style. The saw will be displayed together with an information poster regarding the biology of sawfish.

Barbara would like to thank her friend Hans, for recognising the importance of the saw and donating it, so that it could be returned to where it came form.

 

Spotters t-shirts

What are sawfish spotters?

Have you noticed some very cool looking people recently, wearing the SARA Sawfish Spotter’s t-shirts?

We are very proud of these t-shirts, which feature a drawing by the amazing Julius Csotonyi. The t-shirt raises awareness for the submission of sawfish sightings (historical and recent) to the SARA sawfish sightings campaign. YOU can submit your sighting here.

If you have received your t-shirt we would love you to tag us on social media @SharksAndRaysAU and use the #sawfishspotters to raise awareness for our sightings campaign and your awesomeness! Thank you for contributing to the conservation of these amazing critters!

Wearing a Sawfish Spotter t-shirt does not give permission to target sawfish in Australia, for sighting submissions or otherwise. Please remember, sawfish are endangered and protected under both state and federal legislations and there are steep fines for targeting these fish without a permit.

This t-shirt campaign is funded by our Queensland Government Office of the Chief Scientist Citizen Science grant, as well as a Save Our Seas Foundation small grant.

 

The art of Rod Lucas

The art of Rod Lucas

In March 2022, i (Barbara) visited Karumba for a Queensland Fisheries meeting. During a break at the meeting, Rod Lucas popped in! I had never actually met him, but was aware of him and his sawfish art for a long time.

In 2019, I ran a field trip to Karumba, and as part of it we asked locals to allow us to sample their sawfish saws. This was the first time I came across one of Rod’s saw casts. As it was painted, it took us a few minutes to figure out what we were looking at.

Rod’s casts are for sale in the Les Wilson Barramundi Discovery Centre in Karumba. When I visited him there to see some more of his artworks, he had a surprise for me, a cast that he made as a gift for Sharks And Rays Australia. It is absolutely stunning! Check out the rostral teeth, he left them transparent, so that it’s visible that this is not a real sawfish saw.

Rod’s creativity allows this important part of both Indigenous and also North Queensland culture, the display of sawfish saws, to continue into the future, without posing any harm to endangered species.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link to ABC article on Rod Lucas’ work: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-15/karumba-artist-using-his-work-to-fight-for-endangered-sawfish/100828104

Rod Lucas Gallery https://www.rodlucasgallery.com.au/

Dr Wueringer from SARA with artist Rod Lucas and the amazing saw he made for SARA.

SawSearch project update

SawSearch project update

By Annmarie Fearing, University of Mississippi

‘SawSearch’ is a collective research effort led by Dr. Nicole Phillips and Annmarie Fearing from the University of Southern Mississippi and Kelcee Smith from Louisiana State University. This project would not be possible without our collaborators from around the world, dedicated volunteers, and funding from Save Our Seas Foundation, Shark Conservation Fund, and The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation. Thank you for being a part of our ‘SawSearch’ project and supporting our efforts to collect tissue samples from historic sawfish specimens. With your help we have collected over 1,500 tissue samples from all five species of sawfish from over 150 public and private natural history collections. Specimens originate from as far back as the 1600’s and span from origins around the globe such as West Africa (read more here), Nicaragua, Panama, and Bangladesh, among others. As we continue to collect and process these important samples, we wanted to provide you with a brief update.

 Historical Smalltooth Sawfish tissue being digested during DNA extraction. Image by Annmarie Fearing. 

 

We experienced some setbacks due to COVID-19, but we are now back in the lab hard at work. We have extracted DNA from all Largetooth, Green, and Smalltooth Sawfish tissue samples and are currently sequencing and genotyping the DNA.
Thanks to your participation in this research, we have DNA sequence information from historic sawfish populations that would otherwise not be possible, such as the sequence shown below from a Green Sawfish saw collected from the Arabian Sea in 1961. You can read about our preliminary findings on the genetic diversity in Largetooth Sawfish in our blogs posted on our Save Our Seas Foundation project page.
The ‘SawSearch’ team has shared preliminary data from this research via public talks and scientific conferences. In 2019, Annmarie presented preliminary genetic data for Largetooth Sawfish at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Utah, USA and Kelcee shared progress on her research on Smalltooth Sawfish at the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) meeting in Illinois, USA. In February 2021, Nicole participated in a public presentation on sawfish for the
Wildlife in the Red program organized by Wessex Museums, which can be viewed here. Additionally, Annmarie will be giving a talk at the 2022 SPNHC meeting in Scotland and may see some of you there.

For the remainder of the year, we will be dedicated to wrapping up the analyses of these data for publications, but we will still be on the search for more saws. We are currently working to gather additional samples from Papua New Guinea and Brazil, which would allow us to address uncertainties regarding the status of sawfish in these locations.

As we continue to collect more samples and expand our research we will be sure and keep you all updated. Thank you again for being a part of ‘SawSearch’!

Featured image caption: DNA sequence (above) from a Green Sawfish saw (below) from a sawfish captured at Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea in 1961.

Annmarie Fearing (left), Nicole Phillips (middle left), Cat Gordon (middle right), and Kelcee Smith (right). Image by Annmarie Fearing.