Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Saving Sawfish in Sudanese Waters: An Interview with Igbal Elhassan

Igbal Elhassan was the winner of the first International Sawfish Day Grant given out last year, so the SCS wanted to highlight some of her work and experiences for ISD 2018. Igbal has been working with sawfish since the early 2000’s in the Sudanese Red Sea and has implemented a sawfish team that has been working to spread awareness of sawfish and conduct sawfish surveys in this region. If you have yet to read the paper she released this year then please go check it out: The work that Igbal and her colleagues at the Marine Fisheries Administration are doing in this region is essential and the SCS was so excited to be able to speak with her and share this interview with you all. 

1.    As the winner of the 2017 ISD Grant, can you briefly update us on the research you are currently working on with sawfish in the Sudanese Red Sea and anything new that has come up since your last post on the SCS? 

     I was fortunate to win the 2017 ISD Grant and I thank all those who were behind the idea of celebrating International Sawfish Day and I would very much like to thank the donors as well. The money enables the sawfish team to survey some important areas for sawfish in the northern Sudanese coast. I have also continued the awareness campaign about sawfish and have arranged for upcoming work with fishermen. 
     I am very glad to say my proposal to Shark Conservation Small Grant Fund has won funding for work on sawfish. The sawfish team was supposed to start the work in August 2018. Due to the complication of the economic sanction on Sudan, we only have received the funds recently. It is good that the sanction is in the process to be lifted. We will start the work this October. We will survey the nursery areas of green sawfish along the Sudanese Red Sea to assess the number of neonates and juvenile green sawfish in these areas. The ecology of these areas will also be studied. The project also aims to survey areas where adult green sawfish have been found resting on the sand during low tide. Environmental DNA (eDNA) surveys will be conducted for areas where green sawfish were historically common in order to investigate the present existence of green sawfish in these areas. An education and awareness campaign on the status of green sawfish among the fishermen and their communities will accompany the survey as well as training of fishermen on detangling the rostrum from a net. Pit tagging will be the next step with an opportunity for additional funding and collaboration to do this work. 
     During my last visit to Port Sudan to arrange with the Marine Fisheries Administration for the upcoming work on green sawfish, I went to the old Sawkin town to meet fishermen from the southern coast for an update on encounters with sawfish. These old fishermen, seen in the photos below, confirmed that sawfish are still encountered in the Sudanese water close to the Eritrean border. 

Igbal (in the middle) and the sawfish team: Mohammed Mirgani, Eisa Mahmood, Mohammed Eragi, and Onisa. 

This fisherman said he had encountered two large sawfish, one male and one female, in Sudanese waters. 

This fisherman encountered a juvenile sawfish this summer (2018) in Sawkin town. He said he and his friends went to catch mullet for their supper and found it resting on the sand. They just passed by it. 

2.    How/when did you first become interested in sawfishes?

     My interest in sawfish started in early 2000. I was a teaching assistant when I got an internal scholarship from the Ministry of Higher Education in Sudan to pursue a Master’s degree. My proposal was on sharks (Some Biological Aspects and Fishery of Sharks in the Sudanese Red Sea) and it was the first study on sharks in the Sudanese Red Sea. Before I registered for the study, I went to the Sudanese coast to see how I could collect data as there was an order banning shark fisheries (before it has become a law in 2008). I met a fisherman that caught a pregnant adult sawfish as bycatch from an area in the Southern Sudanese coast called Abida. That was my first time seeing a sawfish. The fisherman, named Bakit, noted that sawfish were becoming very rare to encounter and he attributed that to the scarcity of rain in last years. From that moment I realized the situation of sawfish and thus I have started the investigation and the awareness of sawfish in this region. In 2011 I formed a network with the fishermen and divers along the Sudanese coast to report any encounters they have with sawfish. It has been a very successful network and I have continued the work and the awareness campaign. In 2017 I formed a sawfish team with colleagues at the Marine Fisheries Administration. Involvement of the Marine Fisheries Administration will ensure the protection of sawfish. 
     Last February I met Bakit by accident while I was talking with fishermen in Swakin, a coastal town in Sudan. He retired and was visiting the town. He said to me you have not finished this study on sawfish yet? It is a long time since I first met you. I said it is a continuous study because of the endangered situation of sawfish, the case you first enlightened me about.

Two rostra from green sawfish caught in 2001 from Marsa Abida on the southern Sudanese coast. 

3.    What is the current attitude of fishermen in your area towards sawfish? Do you think your encounters with these fishermen make a difference in their attitude towards sawfish?

The awareness and talk about the situation of sawfish throughout these many years have made a difference in the attitude of the fishermen towards sawfish. The elder fishermen, contrary to the young fishermen, have a responsible and wise sense towards conservation. Financial difficulties sometimes motivate some fishermen to kill a sawfish for profit rather than release it. My outreach efforts focus mainly on young fishermen and the fishermen who target sharks. The longtime awareness campaign on sawfish has made difference as most pups and juvenile green sawfish that are encountered are then returned to the sea. I have a report on the number of sawfish pups and juveniles that were released back to sea in 2017 and in early 2018. I have also arranged with some fishermen from the southern and northern Sudanese coast to work with the team on the upcoming survey and they will be paid for that work. We hope the upcoming campaign will help fishermen have a more positive attitude about sawfish. A talented artist is working on the posters and a design for the campaign and also a design for showing how to release a sawfish when it is encountered. 

Fawzi, an expert fisherman who encountered adult sawfish in Abida on the southern Sudanese coast talking about the battle to release the sawfish back to sea. 

This is a group of young fishermen. One of them, called Emiad (the one in the grey shirt), encountered a huge sawfish in Kilo 8, Sudan while fishing with a hand line from shore and ran away from it. 

4.    Can you tell us a little about your favorite field story?

I have a couple great field stories, though my favorite one is when I met a young fisherman who told me he had just accidentally encountered an adult sawfish resting on the sand while fishing by hand line in a shallow area about 8 km from Port Sudan town. The fisherman said it was huge and that he got frightened so he ran away from it and he also said it was his first time he had seen a sawfish. Another story was told to me by Fawzi, an expert fisherman, who said he encountered a huge sawfish while in Abida (on the southern coast close to the Eritrean border) that he and his young assistant tried to release from the net, but it pulled the boy into the water. Fawzi and his assistant finally released the sawfish back into the water after a battle. 

Mr. Omer, an officer at the Marine Security, being interviewed by Igbal after he found a large rostrum of a sawfish captured in February 2018 that had been thrown on land after the sawfish had been processed by fishermen at sea in Talla Talla Saqir, Sudan. 

5.    What has been the most difficult obstacle in your research career so far?  

As a woman, I do not have an issue working in Sudan as it is normal for women to work in different disciplines, though there are still few women who work in the marine biology field here. So far, the most difficult obstacles in my research career have been the scarcity of funding for research and the scarcity of facilities for genetic work. I got trained in genetic work while in the USA at the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Centre so I hope facilities become available to do genetic work in Sudan. Currently there are a few institutes that have the basics, but sequencers are lacking.   

6.    What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? 

I do not have any particular advice. I think those who work with fishermen enjoy the work with them and can learn a lot from their experience. In my opinion, besides the skill, passion for a field, patience and honesty are keys for any successful work.   

Igbal interviewing a fishermen, Mohammed, who is an officer in the military. Mohammed and his friends accidentally captured an adult male sawfish at Sararat Island in Mohammed Gol., Sudan last year and managed to release it alive. 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

An Interview with the “Sherlock Holmes” of Sawfish

Many of you may be familiar with Matt McDavitt’s fascinating posts on the Sawfish Conservation Society’s Facebook page, while others may know him as the source of knowledge on the cultural role of sawfishes around the globe and the owner of a renowned sawfish rostra collection that is used for research. Either way, if you ever have the chance to talk with Matt, you will understand why some call him the “Sherlock Holmes” of sawfish. At SCS we wanted to find out what started Matt’s drive for sawfish knowledge and what he finds so interesting about our toothy friends.  

What career field are you in? 
          I am a research attorney; basically, I develop legal arguments and I ghost-write for other lawyers nationally (and occasionally internationally), usually regarding probate and trust litigation, as well as environmental law, and admiralty/shipping law.

                  PC: Matt McDavitt, This is Matt standing next to a large Green Sawfish rostrum.

           How/when did you first become interested in sawfishes? 
    I’ve always had a strong interest in sharks ever since early childhood, but my specific fascination with sawfish arose in early adulthood. During my first semester of college I took a course on comparative religions; as part of the class, we studied Aztec religious beliefs and practices. While researching a paper for that unit, I examined copies of the surviving Aztec painted books, and located several symbols that looked to me suspiciously like sawfish saws. I poured through the literature interpreting these beautiful screenfold almanacs, but none of the authors identified the strange spiky objects I’d noticed; apparently no one knew what those objects were!  I was hooked – I spent the next four years learning about Aztec language and culture, trying to find out if they knew of sawfishes and used their saws for some purpose. What I found was that sawfishes were symbols of the earth deity in Aztec thought, specifically linked to warfare, because they, like warriors, carried swords. When the main temple of the Aztecs was excavated in Mexico City, the archaeologists found dozens of sawfish saws in the many offertory caches buried beneath the structure.

                        PC: Matt McDavitt, An example of an Aztec depiction of a sawfish rostrum.

Do you have a favorite sawfish species? Why?

    Probably the Dwarf Sawfish, Pristis clavata – they are still quite mysterious in many ways, and I love their unique glowing, grey-gold color.  Traditionally, we’ve thought Dwarf Sawfish to be confined to the coasts of northern Australia. However, museum specimens reveal that this species formerly occurred in Indonesia, with a range up to at least the northeast coast of India. I’ve found dwarf sawfish saws deposited in Thai temples, strongly suggesting local occurrence in Thailand, and I located naturalist drawings and descriptions from Myanmar apparently depicting this species. I wonder why Dwarf Sawfish and Green Sawfish differ so much in their saw morphology, with the Dwarf Sawfish’s saw proportionally extremely short (as little as 1/5 of the total length), versus the Green Sawfish’s rostrum, which makes up a much larger percentage of the animal’s length (up to 1/3 of the total). Certainly, this disparity between short-sawed Dwarf Sawfish, compared to the lengthy saws borne by Greens reflects some morphological adaptation either to their respective environments or behavior!  Hopefully, we can answer such questions in the future.

    What was the first rostrum in your collection? How did you come across it?
    The first rostrum I acquired was a large, old soot-blackened Smalltooth Sawfish saw that I came across in an antique shop near my college over two decades ago.  It was hanging on a wall of archaic tools and was labeled as a “farming implement”!

PC: Annmarie Fearing, These are a few of the sawfish rostra from the McDavitt Collection.

If you are willing to share your secrets, how do you find all the obscure sawfish information/photos you post on the SCS page? 
    I have a “secret weapon” regarding how I locate sawfish material on the internet, but that will have to wait for another day, so that my methodology is not compromised!

What is the most interesting listing you have come across online for sawfish rostra/fins/etc.?
    I guess that would be the listings I find from the Chinese folk religion practitioners throughout South East Asia. They believe that sawfishes are the children of the Sea Goddess, and thus supernaturally powerful; they believe that the saws of any animals accidentally caught must be deposited at a nearby temple to assuage the dangerous spirit of the sawfish (they also believe that sturgeons are the sole physical form assumed by dragons!).  Practitioners of this religion use sawfish saws essentially as magical swords, with the supernatural power to dispel the hungry ghosts and demons that plague mankind with sickness, misfortune, injurious accidents, and death.  I’ve found similar beliefs from East Africa all the way to coastal China!

Have you ever seen a sawfish in the wild? If so, where were you and when? If not, where would you like to travel in hopes of seeing a sawfish?
    Although I spent a summer on Lake Nicaragua specifically looking for sharks and sawfish, and I once accompanied Colin Simpfendorfer and Tonya Wiley-Lescher on one of their sawfish tagging excursions in southern Florida, I have not yet seen a sawfish in the wild. 

In cultures where multiple sawfish species are present, are the sawfishes as a group culturally important or do different species have different meanings in these cultures?
    From what I’ve found, societies generally make no distinction between sawfish species based on body-form or behavior (i.e., marine versus freshwater animals).

PC: Annmarie Fearing, A painted rostrum from the McDavitt Collection

How many different languages can you say “sawfish” in?
    Probably hundreds; I have recorded terms for sawfish in over 50 Australian Aboriginal languages alone!  Such terms can be useful to determine historical distribution of animal species; in a new project I am working on, I’ve located multiple sawfish place-names in indigenous languages in Australia and in Mexico/Guatemala/Ecuador, likely marking areas where sawfishes were formerly abundant. 

In your opinion, what culture has the most interesting representation/view of sawfishes and can you tell us a little about it?
    There are many beautiful sawfish symbols and metaphors all over the coastal tropics. One of my favorites comes from several Kongo-speaking cultures along the coasts of east central Africa. African societies often traditionally transmitted important values, morals, and observations on human nature via proverbs.  Certain proverbs were also represented in art, to visually convey the lesson they contained. To these Kongo peoples, who had witnessed sawfishes in bays, estuaries, and rivers slashing at fishes, the sawfish’s fondness for striking at the fish that swam within range of its toothy saw was a natural symbol for judicial impartiality.  The proverb translates: “The Sawfish Saw: all fish that went in front, I cut the same!”, conveying the message that justice, must like the sawfish’s hunting technique, be applied impartially, so that one’s status or rank should never affect the outcome of a judicial matter.  It is equivalent to the Western world’s “Lady Justice” symbolism, which also states that justice must be blind and applied equally to all.  Thus, traditionally, a stylized sawfish saw was the symbol of fairness under law, which I think is a beautiful and important concept to be linked with the remarkable sawfish. Perhaps sawfish populations would be in better shape globally if they possessed similar symbolic value in other cultures…

PC: Annmarie Fearing, A painted Narrow Sawfish rostrum from the McDavitt Collection