All species of sawfish are now globally Critically Endangered

All species of sawfish are now globally Critically Endangered

In 2022 the reassessments of all four species of sawfish under the criteria of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Redlist commenced, and it was a global effort. Sawfish researchers from all over the world worked together to identify and assess the current distributions, habitats and ecology, population status, as well as ongoing threats for all five species.

Sadly, since the last assessments of sawfishes, in many regions the threats posed to these bizarre fishes have not declined and as a result all five species are now considered as globally Critically Endangered. With Australia being home to the last significant populations of four species of sawfish, what happens here matters greatly. While some species are still found in other countries, and for example freshwater sawfish Pristis pristis are being rediscovered in Central America, the genetic diversity in Australian populations of this species needs to be protected.

The assessments are comprehensive and in-depth. They represent a good starting point for anyone who is interested in understanding these species better.

Freshwater sawfish – Pristis pristis

Espinoza M, Bonfil-Sanders R, Carlson J, Charvet P, Chevis M, Dulvy NK, Everett B, Faria V, Ferretti F, Fordham S, Grant MI, Haque AB, Harry AV, Jabado RW, Jones, GCA, Kelez S, Lear KO, Morgan DL, Phillips NM, Wueringer BE. 2022. Pristis pristisThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T18584848A58336780. Link

Dwarf sawfish – Pristis clavata

Grant MI, Charles R, Fordham S, Harry AV, Lear KO, Morgan DL, Phillips NM, Simeon B, Wakhida Y, Wueringer BE. 2022. Pristis clavataThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T39390A68641215. Link

Green sawfish – Pristis zijsron

Harry AV, Everett B, Faria V, Fordham S, Grant MI, Haque AB, Ho H, Jabado RW, Jones GCA, Lear KO, Morgan DL, Phillips NM, Spaet JLY, Tanna A, Wueringer BE. 2022. Pristis zijsronThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T39393A58304631. Link

Narrow sawfish – Anoxypristis cuspidata

Haque, A.B., Charles, R., D’Anastasi, B., Dulvy, N.K., Faria, V., Fordham, S., Grant, M.I., Harry, A.V., Jabado, R.W., Lear, K.O., Morgan, D.L., Tanna, A., Wakhida, Y. & Wueringer, B.E. 2023. Anoxypristis cuspidataThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2023: e.T39389A58304073. Link

Smalltooth sawfish – Pristis pectinata

Carlson, J., Blanco-Parra, MP, Bonfil-Sanders, R., Charles, R., Charvet, P., Chevis, M., Dulvy, N.K., Espinoza, M., Faria, V., Ferretti, F., Fordham, S., Giovos, I., Graham, J., Grubbs, D., Pacoureau, N. & Phillips, N.M. 2022. Pristis pectinataThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2022: e.T18175A58298676. Link

We are hiring!

SARA-r job ad – Research Assistant and Administration Support Officer (Hybrid)

Summary: SARA-r is recruiting one research and engagement support office, ideally with a background in biology/ecology/research administration to work with the Principal Scientist and Founder in this exciting and varied role. You will help with research administration, data analysis, report writing and play a key role during our outreach and engagement activities both with the general public as well as Aboriginal Land and Sea ranger groups. This role will also help to implement and grow our projects and funding.

  • Term: There is funding for this role for at least 6 months (with 3 months probation period). The intention is for this to be a permanent role, however continuation of the role is dependent on continuation of funding.
  • Hours: part-time, 0.4-0.5FTE (to be negotiated)
  • Pay according to award rates, depending on the candidate’s qualifications.
  • Works closely with principal scientist.

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 just quietly go extinct, but 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.

Vacancies: We are recruiting one person (0.4-0.5FTE) to join our research team. This is an office based position, which may involve some outdoor work but does not specifically focus on scientific field work. While occasional involvement in field work may become part of the duties, the core tasks of this role involves office-based work which include project administration, planning, data management and research administrative tasks. The suited candidate should ideally have experience in working in an environment where science and conservation intersect. The suited candidate needs to be team player who can also work independently, and is happy to work from home, when not in the field. However, multiple field trips are planned, and the candidate will also support the principal scientist during field work. We are looking for an enthusiastic individual who is residing in Australia. You need to be based in Cairns, and be able to work from home, but with regular contact and in person meetings with our Principal scientist and other team members.

Tasks will include:

  • Research administation
  • Data entry & report writing
  • Help maintain field work gear
  • Engagement with Aboriginal Land and Sea Ranger groups

Non-negotiable skills & qualifications (where possible they should be confirmed by qualifications and/or references):

  • Minimum of BSc in biology / conservation biology / marine ecology or similar relevant field
  • Demonstrated good writing and communication skills, including report writing
  • Experience in data entry, analysis and scientific writing
  • Experience using Microsoft Office, R, qGIS

Additional desirable skills:

  • ability to work with photos and videos
  • Ability to understand the principles of conservation biology, ecological management, endangered species management and a willingness to expand this knowledge in pursuit of SARA-r’s mission.
  • First aid course

Additional information: The income will be according to award rates (Professional Services Award) and qualification and experience level. The positions are based in Cairns, but the candidate should be able to work from home as well as in the office. To apply for this position, please email a cover letter outlining answers to the following questions, along with your CV to our contact email. Applications without cover letter or CV will not be considered.

  1. Why are you interested in joining SARA-r?
  2. Outline your previous skills, knowledge and experience especially in relation to the non-negotiable skills and qualifications
  3. Please provide names and contact details of two references.

Meting Minsters on Valentine’s Day

From left to right: Barbara Wueringer (SARA), Luke Albury (DAF), China Major (Traditional owner), Dallas Da Silva (DAF), Michael Yam (Traditional owner), Jeff Iken (DAF)

From left to right: Hon. Leanne Linnard MP, China Major (Traditional Owner), Michael Yam (Traditional Owner), Hon. Mark Furner MP, Dr Wueringer

For Valentine’s Day 2024, our Principal Scientist supported two Traditional Owners from Kowanyama, namely China Major and Michael Yam, to meet with various people in Brisbane to voice concerns regarding the treatment of the local waterways by commercial fishers.

Kowanyama is also known as ‘The place of many waters’, and the name already clearly shows a connection of its people with local waterways. For the people of Kowanyama, the ability to go hunt and fish, and to supply their own bush tucker is important. The dependence on local waterways to supply food is especially strong during the wet season, when roads to Kowanyama become unpassable and supplies from the outside can be delivered by plane only.

We would like to thank everyone for taking their time to listen to the concerns by the Traditional owners, China Major and Michael Yam. Together, they represent both the freshwater people and the saltwater people from Kowanyama. Their concerns were also in regards to sawfish, and identified the importance to maintain the Mitchell River and its tributaries as an important habitat for sawfishes.

Dissection of a sawfish

Dissection of a sawfish

Dissecting for a deeper understanding

My SARA internship experience

Madison Baker (The University of Adelaide)

As part of my science internship with Sharks And Rays Australia (SARA), I had the unique opportunity to assist with the dissection of a juvenile narrow sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidata).

Working with a highly threatened and elusive species, you don’t always get the chance to develop a deeper understanding of their biology. Therefore, having the opportunity to perform a dissection on a narrow sawfish was extraordinary and a once in a lifetime experience.

The dissection began with a sense of anticipation in the air. The team, composed of myself, SARA Principal Scientist Dr Barbara Wueringer and SARA Director Mark Tozer, meticulously prepared for the procedure. The juvenile narrow sawfish, one of the eight specimens graciously donated to SARA, lay before us, offering a rare glimpse into the intricacies of its anatomy.

Our primary goal of this dissection was not only to collect samples (i.e. DNA, gut content, morphometrics) for research, but use this opportunity to connect with the general public and educate them. Check out the live video on the SARA Facebook!

Exciting external findings

Before a scalpel was even lifted, we examined the sawfish’s extraordinary external features first. The rostrum, lined with sensory pores known as ampullae of Lorenzini, allows the sawfish to detect the electric fields produced by its prey. As we explored further, we documented the size and arrangement of the teeth, shedding light on the species’ feeding habits and ecological role. Estimated to be less than a year old, the rostral teeth of the specimen were noted to be still hook-shaped. The true purpose of this ‘notching’ still evades scientists today.

We then worked our way along the head and body towards the tail of the sawfish. Noted were two large eyes – that can sink into its head for protection, five-pairs of gill slits that lay underneath, two spiracles situated behind the eyes – that allow the sawfish to respire without inhaling sediment, two large flat pectoral fins and anal fins – perfect for sitting on the bottom, two dorsal fins of equal height, and a forked tail.

The sawfish was also noted to be covered in a mucous layer which made it slimy to touch. Fishermen sometimes refer to this species as the ‘slimy sawfish’. Barbara explained this helps protect them from diseases and wound infections.

Dissecting deeper

With surgical precision, we then carefully opened up the specimen to reveal the complex structures that lay beneath. We identified a large oily liver with an unusual green abscess (this was biopsied), a huge hook-shaped stomach, a spiral-valved intestine (how cool!), spleen, pancreas, gall bladder and rectal gland – an special organ for salt excretion.

We inspected the stomach to see what this juvenile narrow sawfish had been eating and to our surprise, fish eye lenses were found. But we would have to wait on the lab results to know the species and anything else it had been eating.

The most challenging part of this dissection was trying to identify the sex of this individual. As this specimen was very young, its reproductive organs were underdeveloped, so it was difficult to discern testes from ovaries. However, after some probing, we concluded that this young individual was in fact female.

My takeaways from this experience

This dissection not only contributed valuable data to ongoing SARA research but also provided an immersive educational experience for myself and the public. It emphasized the importance of conservation efforts to protect these vulnerable creatures, whose populations are highly threatened.

As I reflect on this science internship, this narrow sawfish dissection stands out as a highlight. It serves as a reminder of the endless wonders that the natural world holds and the crucial role we play as scientists in unravelling its mysteries.

Here’s to a super awesome and unique internship experience!

East Coast sawfish

East Coast sawfish

There it was! For many people what we were looking at was probably meaningless but for me it meant the world. We were in Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park (CYPAL, Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land), following a ranger car on a dirt road, to a turn off with a sign displaying “Bizant River” in big yellow letters. It’s probably ridiculous how excited I was, but when you spend your whole adult life studying euryhaline sharks and rays that move between fresh and saltwater, the Bizant River has an almost mystical meaning. After all that’s where the first specimens of speartooth shark Glyphis glyphis were found.

Rinyirru National Park is the second largest national park in Queensland and it is home to the Lama Lama and Kuku Thaypan peoples, the Bagaarrmugu, Mbarimakarranma, Muunydyiwarra, Magarrmagarrwarra, Balnggarrwarra and Gunduurwarra clans and related families. It contains many story places and sites of traditional significance and its ecological significance is immense, with large river systems as well as around 100 permanent billabongs. Most people would have heard about the park through the extensive adventures of the crocodile hunter, Steve Irwin. What not many people know is that Rinyirru NP and its rivers are also home to what is likely the last population of freshwater sawfish Pristis pristis on the east coast of Australia.

Since our first exploratory trip in 2018, our project aiming to identify the distributions of sawfishes within the park, has grown. In 2020 we were awarded a Queensland Government Community Sustainability Action grant, auspiced by Cape York NRM. In collaboration with Rinyirru Aboriginal Corporation and their Land and Sea rangers, and also the Laura Land and Sea rangers, we aimed to identify sawfish habitat and assess species distributions between 2020-2023.

In May 2023, Sharks and Rays Australia was awarded a Threatened Species research grant from the Queensland Government. The funds will allow implementation of a sawfish tracking study in Rinyirry (Lakefield) National Park (CYPAL, Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land), together with our collaborators at Rinyirru Aboriginal Corporation and their Land and Sea rangers, the Laura Land and Sea rangers, The Queensland Government and the University of the Sunshine Coast.

In September 2023 we ran the last field trip under the CSA grant, but already implemented the first steps for our new funding, and so the first acoustic receivers were deployed in the park. The highlight of this field trip was another encounter though, as we all met with the Queensland Minister for the Environment, Hon. Leanne Linnard, and also the Minister for the Environment and Water, Hon. Tanya Plibersek. We got them to tag their own little sawfish which they then also took home.

Image: Dr Wueringer (SARA) with the Hon. Tanya Plibersek, Federal Minister of Environment and Water (left) and the Hon. Leanne Linnard, Queensland Minister of the Environment and the Great Barrier Reef, and their sawfish.

Image: Nikki Biskis (SARA) and Gene Ross (QPWS, Rinyirru) geared up to set acoustic receivers on a steep bank. 

Snapshots of stewardship: a multi-day training in Coen, QLD

Snapshots of stewardship: a multi-day training in Coen, QLD

by Veronika Biskis

Continuing our work with the Lama Lama Land and Sea Rangers, SARA was invited to provide training in sawfish monitoring for the Rangers and the local community in Coen, QLD in July. The entire journey was documented by the talented Don Silcock, who was not only capturing the trip, but delving into untold stories from Elders in the region.

The trip to Coen was a first for us – travel via plane! The SARA team is well versed in the two day trek up from Cairns in the troop-carrier, but with funding from the Engaging Science Grant received this year, we were able to hitch a ride on an 8-seater Cessna. Unsurprisingly, the Cape looks just as incredible from above, and is always the reminder for just how remote our work is.

Figure 1: (L) The PDR from the Hinterland Plane (R) Nikki and Barbara at the Coen Airport

Alison Liddy of the Lama Lama Land and Sea Rangers organised a workshop with the Junior Rangers for the first evening. Dr Wueringer presented to some new and familiar faces on fundamental principles such as food webs, healthy ecosystems, as well as hands on techniques in field science. We are extremely lucky for the opportunity to talk about traditional and modern methods in caring for Country with the next generation of local scientists.

Figure 2: The junior rangers mastering sawfish ID and how to tag sawfish. 

The second day was aimed at citizen scientists, recreational fishers, and the Rangers. Participants learned about sawfish biology, survey methods, and tagging. After the event, Elders shared stories of growing up in Coen and seeing sawfish in their youth. These rare examples of Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK) create real context in understanding changing environments. Don Silcock documented this connection to Country throughout. In the afternoon, we headed to the famous Exchange Hotel, where locals continued to share their past experiences with sawfish.

Figure 3: (L) Barbara presents to the community in Coen. (R) Revising sawfish ID with Lama Lama Land and Sea rangers. 

This whirlwind trip to Coen, Queensland, marked another milestone in our ongoing effort to involve the entire community in sawfish conservation, whether that’s kids, Traditional Owners, visiting fishers, the Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program or Queensland Parks. Don’s photographs captured not only the educational aspects of the trip but the cultural significance, helping to build a visual narrative that will resonate with audiences beyond the Cape. This trip would not have been logistically possible without funding from grants like Engaging Science, allowing for citizen science and collaboration between organisations from across the state.

Figure 4: (L) Barbara, Nikki and Alison speak with Brian Ross. (R) from left to right: Lama lama ranger, Alison Liddy, Barbara Wueringer, Nikki Biskis, Don Silcock