Spinning, swirling sawfish—oh my. But why?

Spinning, swirling sawfish—oh my. But why?

Since last fall, reports of stranded, whirling, “spinning” and even dead sawfish have been making headlines in the lower Florida Keys. These events have been observed by community members and local fishermen. 28 sawfish mortalities have been confirmed, with more than 100 affected. More than 40 species of other fish have shown these same behaviors.

The Smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) is a cartilaginous fish, closely related to sharks and rays. While its body may resemble that of a shark, the sawfish is actually more closely related to stingrays, as their gill slits are located on the undersides of their bodies. The sawfish is easily distinguished by its rostrum, or long, flat snout ringed with teeth. The rostrum is vital to the sawfish, as the animal uses it for sensing their environment, locating food along the bottom, as well as stunning their prey. Smalltooth sawfish live different life stages in both freshwater as well as marine environments. Sawfish are about two feet long when they are born and can grow up to 17’ long.

Unfortunately, due to coastal development (leading to habitat loss), water quality issues and accidental fishing catch have resulted in the decline of the Smalltooth sawfish population in the United States. In fact, sawfish numbers were so low that they were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2003. While sawfish and their habitats are afforded certain protections under the ESA, the Act cannot prevent their being affected by the current situation, the cause of which is unknown at this point.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, Florida International University, the University of South Alabama, Florida Gulf Coast University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are working collaboratively to try and determine what is causing this strange fish behavior and sawfish death event. Some of the diagnostic work includes water sample analysis for contaminants, synthetic compounds, water column, and benthic harmful algal blooms. Fish have also been evaluated for diseases, parasites, bacteria, and others. Tissue samples from necropsied sawfish have been tested. At this point, all water quality parameters in the Florida Keys are showing normal conditions, including dissolved oxygen levels. All of the aforementioned groups will continue to collaborate to comprehensively determine the cause of this event.

To prevent further sawfish mortalities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) will attempt rescues of stranded or affected sawfish. NMFS has coordinated with partners to develop an emergency rescue and response plan. This response plan includes identified facilities that will house and rehabilitate the sawfish, with the ultimate goal of release back into the wild if possible.

Smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata. Photo: Andy Murch, sharksandrays.com.

What can you do to help?

If you see something, say something! If you are out on the water and you observe any odd fish behavior or fish kills, please report to https://survey123.arcgis.com/share/2485ecbeded748689725da57b1bc319a or call 1-800-636-0511.

For any sawfish sightings, call 1-844-472-9347 or email sawfish@myFWC.com. Please report both healthy sawfish or those exhibiting signs of distress. If you suspect that the animal has died, do not attempt to touch or move the animal. Please take photographs and GPS points and include these with your report. To follow FWC’s weekly updates on the fish behavior event, please visit https://www.myfwc.com/spinningevent.


Posted: March 29, 2024

Tags: Coasts, Marine, Natural Resources, Sawfish, Spinning Fish

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