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

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.




This blog post was originally published as a project update for the Save Our Seas Foundation. You can access the original post here.

Sometimes working with endangered species can be difficult. Personally, I have a lot of respect for my fellow elasmobranch biologists who collect samples and sightings data from fish markets and other locations that bring you close to only body parts of the species you are working so hard to protect.

Last week I received a set of saws that Queensland Fisheries had confiscated. The previous owner of these had received a fine for possession without a permit. It is likely that many of these saws had been taken before sawfish had been protected. But it is also likely that the saws represent a subset of what he collected, the subset that he was not yet able to sell.

The saws will be used for research and education. DNA samples and measurements will be taken, and some of the saws will be used for school visits. But these saws will also guide future sampling efforts. Being an optimist, I am hoping they might lead us to a remnant population of a Pristis species on Queensland’s east coast, in a location where potentially even the populations of Anoxyrpstis cuspidata might still be healthy.

SeaWalls 2018 Welcome

SeaWalls 2018 Welcome

SARA welcomes the Sea Walls artists to Cairns!

Here, at Sharks And Rays Australia we are super excited to have you wonderful people visit Cairns on your inspirational mission to create artwork for marine conservation! My name is Barbara and I am the Director and Principal Scientist of SARA. In the image to the right you can see me doing what I love, which is working with and raising awareness for SAWFISH.

Sawfish used to be quite common here in Far North Queensland, but nowadays they are rare. Globally their chances are even worse and the freshwater sawfish, Pristis pristis, is considered to be amongst the 100 most endangered species in the world. Given that their reduction in numbers has a lot to do with people taking the saws as trophies (I think this makes sawfish our own aquatic rhinos, sadly), raising awareness for sawfish is one of the most important things we can do to ensure these magnificent animals will exist into the future.

I’ve created this page for you to get you excited about sawfish! I hope you enjoy the materials below. I will meet you all at the forum at the Tanks Arts Centre on may 3, for which I return  early from a field trip. if you have any questions about sawfish, please get in touch barbara(at)

Thank you for choosing Cairns as the canvas for your art!



Check out this image above from the State Library of Queensland of a sawfish that was caught at the mouth of the Mulgrave River, just south of Cairns, in 1938. Sawfish generally inhabit shallow waters, but these large animals are hardly encountered anymore. This breaks my heart, just imagine how amazing it would be to see such a creature!


Now let me take you on a journey to Northern Queensland, where we work with sawfish and other sharks and rays!

Below you can watch our video on the saw-less sawfish. People chopping off the saws of live sawfish for trophies seems to become an issue in Queensland. SARA’s data collected over the last 2.5 years indicates that 5-10% of all sawfish we have captured our captures that have been submitted to us are sawless. A study by our collaborators form WA, Team Sawfish indicates that these animals can take up to 3 months to starve to death.

Here is another video by Jeremy Wade’s show RiverMonsters from WA, where he captured a happy little sawfish pup in the Fitzroy River

Here is another educational video from our colleagues at NESP in the NT. Enjoy!

Last but not least you can read some more about Australian sawfish in an article written by my colleague and friend Nicole Phillips (she works on sawfish genetics) and myself. You can access the article here.

Have you heard that a sawfish was found 700km inland in the Northern Territory? Here is a link to the ABC article. It also shows some amazing rock art of sawfish. I recently spoke with an Indigenous Ranger who told me about sawfish rock art in the Laura region, 4 hrs north of Cairns, indicating the cultural importance of these animals to the Great Barrier reef region. Below is an image of a sawfish from Burketown, in the Southern Gulf region.

Outreach, outreach, outreach

Outreach, outreach, outreach

By Barbara Wueringer

Even if your research is extremely meaningful, there is a high chance that most people outside of your field have never heard of it. Even if your study species is extremely endangered, unless it is a cute flagship species (think panda, elephant, rhino), there is a chance that many people including local stakeholders do not know much about it.

The second most important pillar of your work as a scientist, right after producing good quality science, is to communicate your science with those who need to know about it. Social media is important, but in many cases you are ‘preaching to the converted’ as even on twitter someone will have to search #EndangeredSpecies or #Shark in order to find your post within the short period of its lifetime.

Whenever we want to affect a status quo, we have two options: the top down approach and the bottom up approach. Both are equally important! For example, if we want to reduce the number of single use plastic bags in the system, we need to convince companies and governments to ban the bags (top-down), but we also need to work with consumers (bottom-up) who might otherwise unknowingly undermine a ban on bags by asking for single use plastic bags at the supermarket counter, thus creating consumer demand.

One of the most effective, fun and rewarding ways of conducting outreach is to work with local schools. In the last year, which is also our second year of working with volunteers, Sharks And Rays Australia has finally commenced its outreach program in local schools. In an area the size of Germany, that is only inhabited by 28,000 people, a handful of visits in local schools mean that we were able to speak to almost 1% of the population during these school visits, and 4% of all inhabitants under the age of 14.

During our school visits in Aboriginal communities, we do not ask children about the traditional uses of sawfish. Under Native Title law, Indigenous Australians are allowed to capture and eat sawfish for personal consumption only. Many Indigenous Australians are protective of their customs and we respect that. But already the simple question of “Hands up if you’ve ever seen a sawfish!” can provide quantitative insights into current abundances of these animals. In one of the schools, around 90% of the kids had seen a live sawfish before!

After we have explained to the kids what sharks, stingrays and sawfish are and why they are in trouble around the world, we play a game with them, the Food Web Game (download it for free here The game uses local food webs of species that the children know. While the kids colour in the sheets, we explain some of the cool facts about each species to them. Afterwards the big question is who eats whom and once that is established, we pick an animal out of our food chain and ask the kids what happens if this species is overfished, thus teaching them about the importance of maintaining a natural balance.

So far, the feedback has been incredible. The volunteers are stoked to meet the locals, the kids love it, and so do the teachers, as our visits provide the kids with a real world insight into the classroom science they are taught. I personally hope that the presence of female scientists in their classroom will also help some of the girls to realize that STEM science is not for boys only.

This blog post was written for the Save Our Seas Foundation. Access the original post here

It was also published in ‘Inside Ecology’ magazine, which can be found here