Sawfish are spinning and dying in the water off of Florida as the search for survivors starts

In a striking development that has caught the attention of marine biologists and conservationists, the endangered smalltooth sawfish is exhibiting unusual behaviors and experiencing significant mortality rates in Florida’s waters.

Known for their distinctive elongated snouts adorned with teeth, these ancient marine creatures, which have remained largely unchanged for millions of years, are now the focus of an urgent rescue and rehabilitation effort led by federal and state wildlife agencies.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced an “emergency response” initiative set to commence in the Florida Keys.

This groundbreaking effort aims to understand and mitigate the mysterious conditions causing sawfish to spin erratically and die in alarming numbers. Adam Brame, NOAA Fisheries’ sawfish recovery coordinator, emphasized the novelty of this undertaking, marking it as potentially the first attempt to rescue and rehabilitate smalltooth sawfish from the wild.

Since late January, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented an “unusual mortality event,” with around 109 sawfish affected and at least 28 confirmed fatalities.

This phenomenon, characterized by the sawfish’s spinning or whirling motions, has also seemingly impacted other fish species. The cause of these deaths and behaviors remains elusive, with necropsies and water testing yet to pinpoint any pathogens, bacterial infections, chemical contaminants, or environmental factors like low oxygen levels or toxic red tide.

The backdrop of a prolonged summer heatwave, attributed to climate change, which led to coral bleaching and the death of various marine species, raises questions about the potential link to these mysterious sawfish deaths. The warming waters may be a contributing factor, although definitive connections have yet to be established.

Collaboration with organizations such as the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is crucial to this rescue operation. Facilities have been prepared to quarantine and observe rescued sawfish, providing them with the care needed in hopes of uncovering the cause behind this crisis.

Kathryn Flowers, a Mote Postdoctoral Research Fellow and the lead scientist on the sawfish issue, highlighted the importance of even a small number of sawfish deaths on the already endangered population, stressing the need for comprehensive collaboration to solve this mystery.

Public involvement is vital to the success of this initiative. NOAA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission urge the community to report sightings of dead or distressed sawfish, leveraging tips and observations to guide rescue efforts effectively.

This sawfish crisis echoes recent challenges faced by Florida’s manatees, which suffered significant die-offs due to pollution and loss of seagrass. State and federal efforts, including feeding programs, have begun to show signs of recovery for the manatee populations, underscoring the potential impact of coordinated conservation strategies.

As the scientific and conservation communities rally to address this emergency, the situation underscores the interconnectedness of climate change, marine health, and the survival of species that have navigated Earth’s waters for millions of years. The outcome of these efforts may not only help save the smalltooth sawfish but also offer insights into the broader challenges facing marine ecosystems in a changing world.