Published: Thursday, May 21, 2009
Publication: The Miami Herald
Head: Anglers, guides help track rare sawfish
Bylines: BY Susan Cocking scocking@MiamiHerald.com
Body: George Burgess lay on the bow of his pitching skiff holding on for dear life to a rope tied to a lethal, double-toothed saw slicing the air. The slashing weapon was attached to the 12½-foot-long, very much alive, sandpaper-like body of perhaps the rarest marine species in the U.S. -- the small-tooth sawfish.
Leaning over the gunwales was Jason Romine, wielding a knife and a cigar-sized satellite tag with a plastic-toothed anchor. Fortunately, Romine had already tail-roped the giant creature to a cleat on the stern to prevent being whacked. He quickly cut a slit in the tough skin behind the dorsal fin, then jammed in the small anchor with the tag attached.
"You ready?" Romine called to Burgess.
Both men leaned back from the gunwales and slipped the ropes off the monster's bill and tail. Instead of exacting revenge, it simply disappeared into the murky shallows of Florida Bay.
Both Burgess and Romine were beaming. "I'm feeling very good, " Burgess said breathlessly. "It's nirvana to get one this big."
Added Romine, not kidding at all: "Cheers, now let's go get another one!"
Burgess and Romine are scientists with the 1-year-old National Sawfish Encounter Database housed at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. Their job is to collect information on the small-tooth sawfish, a member of the ray family that grows as large as 25 feet and has been rarely seen in U.S. waters over the past 70 years.
Formerly found from New York south to Florida and west to Texas, the large brown creatures with the distinctive saw bills nearly disappeared due mostly to net fishing, but also from loss of their near-shore mangrove habitat. Today, their range is primarily limited to southwest Florida -- mainly in Everglades National Park -- where recreational anglers and guides catch them incidentally while fishing for bull sharks and tarpon.
One of seven sawfish species worldwide, the small-tooth was listed as endangered by the U.S. government in 2003. Its cousin, the large-tooth, also is in trouble. The "endangered" designation makes it illegal to harass, net, keep, or sell sawfish. A permit from National Marine Fisheries Service is required to handle them.
Burgess said recovery of the small-tooth sawfish could take 100 years.
"We won't be around to see this and neither will our kids, " Burgess said of the species' projected recovery. "You hope the people who follow you will have the same desires to save these things and follow through."
One of the first steps in learning about sawfish is to study their movements. Unbeknown to the scientists for several years, an Islamorada fishing guide who accidentally caught his first sawfish in 2000 would provide critical information on this front.
Captain Jim Willcox, a skiff guide out of Bud 'n' Mary's Marina, was fishing with a client for shark and tarpon near Nine Mile Bank in Florida Bay one spring. They were using dead baits on the bottom when they hooked the giant creature and let it go. Over several years, Willcox learned where the sawfish were likely to appear.
"Three years ago, I caught [and released] 27 in one year and didn't tell anybody, " Willcox said. "All big ones."
Eventually, news of the sawfish releases reached Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory, and researchers traveled to the Keys to try to tag one. Willcox was not happy.
"They set up longlines in the channel where we catch other species, " he complained. "It was messing up other fishing in that area."
This spring turned out to be a banner season for Willcox. Between March and early May, he and his clients caught and released 27 sawfish -- including five in one day. One of Willcox's fishing customers posted the information on a blog, and Burgess found out about it.
Earlier this month, Burgess and Romine trailered their skiff down to Islamorada intending to shadow Willcox and fellow guides Perry Scuderi, Jeff Beeler, and Ken Cohan while they fished with clients near Flamingo for sharks. The scientists were hoping the anglers might stumble on some sawfish that they could implant with satellite pop-up tags. The $3,000 tags record depth, water temperature and location, then disengage from the sawfish's body some four months later, float to the surface, and beam the data to a satellite, which then transmits the data to the scientists' computers.
On their two-day trip to Islamorada, the scientists implanted three sawfish ranging from eight to 15 feet long with satellite tags. As a bonus, they put a conventional tag in a fourth animal. All swam away unharmed.
Both guides and anglers cheered the scientists.
"Incredible, " said angler Mike Fiehrer, who released a large sawfish after a 45-minute fight. "I guess they're making a comeback, so that's awesome."
Added Willcox: "It feels good. The whole group feels like we did the right thing. It's good for fish-kind."
Burgess emphasized that the sawfish encounter database is NOT just for reports from fishermen, but from anyone who encounters the species.
"We hold the key as Floridians to the recovery of a species that was much more widespread and important to the natural history of Florida, " Burgess said. "Now it's an obligation of Floridians to bring those [animals] back to their former level of abundance."
If you hook one
If you should happen to hook a sawfish, here are some tips to release it safely and alive: * Keep the sawfish in the water.
* Untangle the line from around the saw and remove as much of it as possible if you can do this safely.
* Cut the line as close to the hook as possible.
* Do not handle the sawfish or attempt to remove a hook from the saw unless you have a long-handled de-hooker. * To report a sawfish encounter, go to http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/sawfish/. If you don't have access to a computer, call George Burgess at 352-392-2360 or Joana Fernandez de Carvalho at 352-871-8230.
Illustration: photo: George Burgess (a), Jason Romine and George Burgess (a)
Captions: SUE COCKING/MIAMI HERALD STAFF
STRUGGLE: Researcher George Burgess hangs over the side of a skiff to control a thrashing small-tooth sawfish, an endangered species caught in Florida Bay.
TIM CLARK/FOR THE MIAMI HERALD
TAGGING: Scientists Jason Romine, left, and George Burgess implant a tag to gather data on a sawfish.http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/sawfish/