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. 

A student internship – Part 2 by Grace McNicholas

A student internship – Part 2 by Grace McNicholas

The next morning, we woke to strong winds and white horses on the river, which up until now had been as flat as a pancake. We later discovered an extreme wind warning had been issued for nearby marine areas, but outside of the reach of even the coastguard this information is not easy to come by. Getting the research vessel out without damaging it against the rocks would be impossible. Additionally, as this river is very shallow, the wind was pushing the surface water downstream, resulting in a prolonged low tide. With no boat ramp, its essential the back wheels of the boat trailer can be reversed into the water at the correct angle so that the boat can be winched on securely. Unable to get the back wheels in deep enough due to the low tide, Barbara suggested accessing a small area on the other side of the river where a commercial fisherman had a semi-permanent camp. Barbara and Julia, who had experience with 4WD, took the Troopie back down the bumpy dirt track. Sitting in our half-dismantled but wind-proof camp and snacking on gingernuts, Annmarie and I waited as the wind howled around us.

Three and a half hours later they returned with bad news. The other area was muddy and soft and with no way to pull the boat out. It was back to the drawing board. The next night we took turns to wake up every hour to check the position of the tide, after marking the sand with numbered increments. My first alarm went off at 1am and after scrabbling around to find my headtorch and pulling on my walking boots, I made my way towards the water’s edge. My heart pounded as I scanned the surrounding area for two glowing red orbs, the infamous sign of crocodile eyes. Phew, no sign of crocs tonight, just the familiar glittering of spider’s eyes sprinkled across the ground. I checked the tide, which was still low, then made a note on our timetable back at camp and tucked myself into my swag until my next check at 5am. A little more confident this time, I headed straight for the shore. Surely, I would find a higher tide? No such luck, the waterline had barely moved.

We discussed our next move over breakfast, which for me obviously involved a good old brew of English Breakfast Tea. The wind had died off and although the tide was still low, we’d have to give it our best shot to get the boat out today. After some skilful driving from Barbara, and some manual re-adjustments from all of us, we finally managed to position the trailer at the exact angle the wheels could go back far enough to get the boat on. A few painstaking hours later and the boat was on the trailer. However, the unevenness of the shoreline meant we couldn’t pull it out without tipping the boat, so back in it went.

Up until now the morale had been pretty high, but the midday sun and exhaustion were starting to get to us all. We agreed it was time for lunch. A can of coke and sandwich later and we were ready to try again. After driving the boat a little upstream, we accessed an area we had previously discounted as there was a large shallow sandbank blocking the boats trajectory to the shore. At first sight we still weren’t hopeful, but with some group perseverance, we managed to guide the boat onto the trailer and winch like crazy! To be honest this part was a bit of an emotional blur and the details are a little foggy. The only thing I do know for sure is I’ll never forget the comradeship and pride we all felt when the back wheels of the trailer finally made it out of the water with the boat firmly attached.

We spent the next night in a campground back in town and were ecstatic over hot showers. We squeezed in one more sampling session in the Norman river (there is a boat ramp!), but despite keeping everything crossed we still didn’t catch any elasmobranchs. As disappointing as this was, unfortunately this is the heart-breaking reality of working with critically endangered species with severely depleted populations. The next day we had arranged to visit the local school to talk about sawfish and the research we were doing. Outreach is an important aspect of SARA and these school visits are a fantastic opportunity to connect what Indigenous kids see when out ‘on country’ with actual science, and maybe even inspire the next generation of biologists and conservationists. The interaction and excitement from these kids was truly heart-warming and gives me great hope for the future.

I’m back in England now, and as I sit here writing this, I can’t help but feel overwhelming proud of myself. SARA expeditions are hardcore, working in some incredibly harsh conditions, with some of the most endangered animals on the planet. From day one of landing in Cairns, to those bucket showers in the outback, this experience has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done; and although I wasn’t lucky enough to see a sawfish, to have even had the opportunity to be involved in a project that could change the fate of future conservation is reward enough. Those two weeks will stay with me forever and it couldn’t be an easier decision for me to sign up for another trip next year.

I’d like to thank Julia and Annmarie for being such enthusiastic, caring team mates and Barbara, the sawfish Goddess herself, for being such a wonderful mentor and friend to all of us.


Sawfish at the Cairns Museum

Sawfish at the Cairns Museum

In August 2018, Sharks And Rays Australia and the Cairns Museum jointly organized a sawfish afternoon at the museum, for National Science Week. Kier Shorey from ABC Far North radio ran a story, and Daniel Bateman wrote an amazing article for the Weekend Post. I am sure that their contributions had lots to do with the huge success of the event, so we would like to thank them for playing such a vital role in helping us reach the public!

More than a month later, we finally finished sampling all the saws from people who responded to the event! This clearly shows that the response was overwhelming and the information collected exceeded our expectations by far!

Here are some of our stats: the Facebook event was viewed 6700 times, and we had 21 people who signed up for it on Facebook, while 100 people were interested. The actual turn out was about 40 people and most of them also went to Dr Wueringer’s talk.

We also had – and this is the most exciting part for SARA – the opportunity to take DNA samples from 48 saws, including 11 saws that were donated to SARA. Moreover, five sightings of live sawfish were submitted to us.

All the DNA samples will be sent to Annmarie Fearing at the University of Mississippi, who will use them for her Masters research project. Many of you met her during the event. The samples will help to identify if and when the genetic diversity held by different species of sawfish decreased. The project also aims to identify which regions globally hold the highest genetic diversity of the different species of sawfish. These regions will then be named as hotspots and should thus be a conservation priority.

For the saws that were donated to SARA we have big plans as well, which we are currently discussing with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Queensland. While we use some saws for our school visits, we want to see the other saws on display in tourist information centres, museums and pubs in Far North Queensland and the Cape York region. Displaying these saws together with information on the conservation of sawfish and where to submit sightings means that these former trophies can become active contributors to sawfish conservation in Queensland!

So with this I would like to thank everybody who made this event possible and who responded to our call and brought their saws in. I would also like to thank Grace McNicholas from York University for helping with the sampling and Annmarie Fearing for involving SARA in her project.

This project is ongoing, so if you have a saw at home that we hve not sampled yet, then please get in touch!


Sawfish – the forgotten sea monsters

Sawfish – the forgotten sea monsters

Sharks And Rays Australia and the Cairns Museum are teaming up for National Science Week 2018 and we’re asking you to help us to gather information on the occurrence of some of the largest but rarest fish in Far North Queensland’s waters!

Sawfish were once common in coastal tropical and subtropical waters around the world, but now they are considered the most endangered family of all sharks and rays globally. The freshwater sawfish Pristis pristis, which is also often called the largetooth sawfish, was recently listed as one of the 100 most endangered species on the planet by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). This is just one of four species of sawfish that are found in the waters of Far North Queensland.

During the afternoon, Dr Barbara Wueringer, the lead scientist and founder of SARA, will be giving a public talk on all things sawfish, including their biology, local history, current situation and threats. Their cultural importance for Indigenous groups in Australia and elsewhere will also be highlighted. Dr Wueringer will be joined by Ann-Marie Fearing from the University of Southern Mississippi and the Sawfish Conservation Society, who will shed light on how a tiny DNA sample from an old saw that you might have at home can help our conservation efforts for sawfish.

Do you have a saw at home? Please bring it with you to the talk! We would like to take measurements, small tissue samples for genetic analysis and hear the story of where it came from. You will receive a certificate that your saw has been sampled, complete with a sample number, which will allow us to report our findings back to you. Please do not attempt to remove a saw from a live sawfish for this!

When: August 11, 2018 from 1pm until 4 pm. Dr Wueringer’s public talk will be held at 1.30pm and repeated at 2.30pm.

Where: Cairns Museum, Cairns School of Arts building, Cnr Lake and Shields St, 93-105 Lake St, Cairns City QLD 4870

Cost: free



Confirm your attendance through our Facebook event here!

you can also find the National Science Week event page here!

Please direct all interview inquiries to barbara@saw.fish

When art meets conservation

When art meets conservation

When I heard that Pangea Seed Foundation was considering to use Cairns as the canvas for their first Australian Sea Walls event, I was really excited. The foundation had been doing amazing work over many years, and after meeting Akira Biondo at a conference on sharks and rays in Berlin, Germany in 2012, I was one of their keen followers. Pangea Seed is the brainchild of Tre Packard and his wife Akira, and funds raised through are used to inspire marine conservation in children. One of the big topics the foundation took on was to teach children about shark finning.

Their work in schools is inspiring, but also is the artwork. The event in Cairns brought together 20 mural artists, both internationally acclaimed as well as locally famous. Various events were organised to inspire their murals, and this is where Sharks And Rays Australia got involved. After all, a mural of a sawfish can reach hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, if placed in the right location in Cairns!

At the beginning of May, I returned early form a field trip in the Northern Gulf of Carpentaria, to join a panel discussion with the artists and founders of Pangea Seed at the Cairns Tanks Arts Centre. Some of the points raised during this discussion were how art can change people’s perceptions of animals. For example, sharks are generally perceived to be dangerous, but a mural of a shark can be perceived to be beautiful, and it is this moment in which the observer’s mind opens, and becomes receptive and curious to the possibility that the long hold perception of the mindless killer might be wrong.

Below you will find the map of murals that were produced across Cairns, I hope you enjoy them for years to come.