Let's stop the blame game and start collaborating! - Sharks And Rays Australia

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.