Monday, May 4, 2020

Seeking Sawfish in Bangladesh: An Interview with Alifa Bintha Haque

   For this SCS blog we are featuring Alifa Bintha Haque, a researcher studying sawfish conservation in Bangladesh. Alifa’s research is impressively funded by SOSF, a National Geographic Photo Ark fellowship, and  ZSL EDGE fellowship and her work focuses on collaborating with fishermen on the coast of Bangladesh to understand where sawfish used to be found and where they are still found today. This work is important to identify critical habitat for sawfish in Bangladesh. Alifa and her team have created a network of local fishermen who they can work with now and in the future to help conserve sawfish in Bangladesh.

A sawfish caught in the artisanal fisheries and landed in a shark processing centre in Cox’s Bazar December, 2016. Upon getting a call from a trader I visited the site to take morphological data on the rostrum and DNA samples.
PC: Aparna Riti Biswas

What is it about sawfish that intrigued you and why have you chosen to focus on them for your project titled "Honing in on Habitats" with Save Our Seas Foundation?

   In 2016, I was working in the area of shark product trade. I was visiting fields and finding amazing information about sharks and rays. I was surprised that despite being a student of Zoology in Bangladesh, I never encountered this knowledge about these amazing species. The diversity was breath-taking and extremely under-researched. While interviewing with shark traders, one particular trader with whom I work in collaboration now, showed me a rostrum of a largetooth sawfish. It was as tall as I am. The teeth were still fresh and sharp like a knife. I was surprised because all my reading till then suggested that sawfish do not land in Bangladesh anymore. While it was abundant in the 1990s, now it is as rare as an almost extinct species. However, while I started questioning the traders and fishers I regularly work with, I came across an entirely different story. I came to know that at least a few sawfish are still landed every year in coastal Bangladesh. They don’t land in the formal landing sites hence, most of the time the landing and trade are not reported. That year, I visited eight landing sites throughout the coasts of Bangladesh from Sundarbans in the west to St. Martin’s Island in the east. It wasn’t a project, I just wanted to collect sawfish stories of the fishers and news about recent landings. To my utter surprise, the number was quite large. While it is quite expensive to run a coast-wide project, I thought of collecting sawfish reports on real-time landing with a cell phone-generated network of fishers and traders. What followed was a two-year trust-building exercise. This happened because I believed in inclusive conservation measures and not blaming the fishers or traders. We were collecting information on the landings (catch location, landing location, the net used to catch, photos, measurements, DNA samples, traders, buyers, price, use and its final destination). While I was getting landing information on a nearly regular basis, it got me thinking about what I would do with only reporting the depletion of populations of such a majestic animal which was also important from an evolutionary perspective. I wanted to research a way that can start conservation actions pioneered by the fishers and facilitated by the researchers and policymakers. This is how I came up with the project you mentioned. My goal was to identify the critical habitats for sawfish in Bangladesh using fisher’s ecological knowledge and initiate a live release program only after assessing the barriers of a marginalized and poor fisher and mitigating those barriers. “Honing on Habitats” is the project where we initiated identifying the critical habitats for sawfish in Bangladesh for facilitating habitat level protection of these species.

Three sawfish was landed in a shark processing centres in Cox’s Bazar, 2017. While conducting a regular field visit and interview surveys, a trader informed us about the landings.
PC: Aparna Riti Biswas

What has been your most memorable sawfish encounter, whether it has been with a rostrum or a live sawfish?

   I have a few memories. While working with traders the experiences were almost always pleasant. They were understanding and wanted to understand what we were trying to do. There was one trader who did not want to be interviewed. I knew he was a key informant in that area having more than 40 years of experience in trading sharks as well as sawfish. I used to go to his office as a courtesy visit every time I went to the field to build a relationship. I knew that working with traders was my job. I knew that at a point in time I wanted to be able to motivate them not to trade on protected species. One day, he called me. For the first time, he asked me why I am conducting my research. He said that I had a good job at the university, yet I was running around in these areas smelling of fish in conditions very difficult for women. My personal experience was very different. I loved what I was doing. I explained to him the importance of sawfish and its protection for the habitat and country’s sake. After hearing me out, he went to his office and came back with a rostrum and presented it to me saying if it helped my research he would be happy. 

   One of the fishers once told me a story of his experience in catching a pregnant sawfish in the recent past. He said once they hauled it out of the water it gave birth to 4-5 pups which were still alive. They caught them all. But when he told me the story the sadness in his eyes and voice compelled me to believe they are compassionate as well. Just they haven’t been sensitised in this way before.

   Another incident took place when we were not very sure whether a network of fishers would give us real-time catch information. One fisher in the Sundarbans called us to let us know that they caught a juvenile sawfish entangled in the mangrove roots in the low tides. While he couldn’t release it, he thought that letting us know would help us. We located the trader and had a meeting. This was my first time seeing a juvenile largetooth sawfish. It was surreal. I know we still have a long way to go, but these little experiences reflect that we might be on the right track. 

While we were conducting day long workshops with fishers to identify critical habitats and possible strategies for live release, this fisherman was particularly helpful. He had an experience of fishing in coastal eaters for more than 30 years but haven’t seen a single sawfish in over 5 years.   
PC: Tazin Mahmud Ashik

Can you tell us about how you came about the green sawfish sample that was found to be the first confirmed record of this species in Bangladeshi waters and what it was like confirming that species ID? 
      Readers can check out the paper here: https://www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jfb.13874

   As I have mentioned earlier, we were collecting sawfish landing information from a network of fishers and traders. One such report led us to Cox’s Bazar. However, there was no information available to confirm the report (no rostrum or photos). Only the traders and processing centre workers were talking about a recent landing. As we couldn’t find any actual proof to corroborate the information we went on conducting regular fieldwork (collecting morphometric data on shark and ray species and random collection of DNA from already cut meat and skin as identification was impossible). Upon analyzing these data, one sample proved to be the green sawfish. This report was way out from green sawfish’s designated former range by IUCN. We called other researchers to ask if a green sawfish was ever reported in this area. However, nobody reported it before and one researcher said that the previous checklist was made arbitrarily and hence, this is the first confirmed record. 

What has been the most difficult obstacle about working with fishermen in your area?

   It just took quite a long time and effort to build trust and rapport with the fishers and traders. Now that they call me with any news; it wasn’t like this before. There is a superstition that the fishers believe in this area. They think that it's an omen if a woman boards their boats and that they won’t get any fish. These people are very simple and so is their way of life. I never tried to board their boats hence, out of respect. One day while I was surveying in one of the boats in the sea, one of the fishers asked me to come on board on their own boat, saying that it was okay because they trusted me as one of them. This was emotional and something I cherish. I really didn’t find it difficult to work with fishers. It was a little difficult to work with some boat owners though. However, I always believed and saw that it all depends on how you approach them and if you respect them enough to understand their predicaments before explaining your research and conservation goals. If they understand that your goals are devised to be achieved in an inclusive manner incorporating their perspectives, then the road becomes much easier. 

In the middle of a great conservation while conducting a workshop in Chattogram, while the fishers are sharing their experiences, identifying the areas of importance within the maps and some made promises to work with us in the future.
PC: Oliver Deppert and Save Our Seas Foundation

What has been the most encouraging/surprising thing about working with fishermen in your area?

   The hospitality and respect that I received were surprising. They come up with food and invited me on many occasions. They called me sharing their happy and sad news and stories. Every story was different but extremely humbling. The most surprising thing for me as a young graduate student back when I started working was getting to see their 'wisdom'. They might speak a simple language, unadorned with scientific terms, but they speak of an important understanding about the species and the waters; about the threats and uncertainties and most importantly about sustainable solutions. It just that, nobody tried to listen to what they have to say.
  
Running an FGD with fishers in Cox’s Bazar before designing the workshops. These helped us understanding what approaches we should take for in-depth researches and helped us building trust as well.  
PC: Aparna Riti Biswas

Do you have any project updates that you would like to share or an exciting finding that you have come across recently? 

   This season we have collected information/data thought 300 coast-wide interviews with fishers and 8 workshops with an array of stakeholders to map the critical habitats for sawfish in Bangladeshi waters to narrow down areas for expeditions. We also used this method to assess the barriers of fishers to decide to release a sawfish live if caught in their nets. This did not only reveal the challenges of fishers for 'live' release but also mapped the possible solutions to mitigate barriers to be able to facilitate them in doing so. We are still analyzing the data. 

Sampling all other elasmobranchs in the landing site in Cox’s Bazar. This is a sharpnose guitarfish a close relative of the sawfish, landed abundantly in Bangladesh. We are working with these species as well to promote proactive measure before the population is irreversibly depleted.
PC: Ashique Chowdhury

For all the aspiring scientists around the world, what advice would you give them when they are facing hard times or difficulties, whether it be with their projects or finding a job in the field?

   I have learnt to be in the process and be accepting of making a hundred mistakes. I am still learning. While I don’t believe I am equipped to give someone any advice. Situations are different so are the aspirations of individuals. I can just share what I did. It’s important to find out what one can do relentlessly even after quite a few failures. Maybe it’s called finding the passion and being at it until you realize you can actually do it. 

   Building on what has already be done and collaborating with researchers and practitioners in that area can be a great start. 

   I believe, training oneself with certain skill sets is important too. There are many young scientists with many skill sets. What one has to do is try to be one of the best in one such skill and use it. As we all know, we still need a lot more people coming in from different sectors merging their research and practise with skills and passion. 

A sawfish rostrum presented to us by one of the traders in Chattogram for research purposes. They are processing and exporting shark products since at least 1970s. The trader was so interested in the work, he asked for a book so that he can identify different species. Upon his request we presented him an Encyclopaedia in fishes of Bangladesh.
PC: Oliver Deppert and Save Our Seas Foundation


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Studying Smalltooth Sawfish: An Interview with Graduate Student Jasmin Graham

Our blog following International Sawfish Day 2019 features Florida State University graduate student, Jasmin Graham. Jasmin is a Master’s student under Dr. Dean Grubbs and is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program recipient. Her graduate work focuses on the interactions of Smalltooth Sawfish with fisheries and you can read more about her interesting project and awesome sawfish encounters in our blog! 

1.     Can you tell us about the research you are doing for your thesis?

My thesis focuses on tracking the movements of adult and large juvenile Smalltooth Sawfish in the United States. I am using both acoustic and satellite telemetry to better understand how sawfish are using the coastline. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), I am identifying areas where sawfish have high interaction probabilities with the shrimp, gillnet and longline fisheries based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries observer data.  Hopefully this information can be useful in understanding and mitigating bycatch of sawfish in these fisheries. I am also using network analysis to understand how the sawfish are moving, where they are aggregating and where they are spending a lot of time in an effort to identify areas for potential critical habitat designation.

2.     Did you want to study sawfish before you started your project?

I came to Florida State University with the intention of studying sawfish, but the project also kind of fell into my lap. I was interested in applied ecological questions and the interface between science and conservation policy. In addition, I have always been fascinated by animals with strange morphology and had previously done research on hammerheads. So, when presented with the opportunity to study a Critically Endangered elasmobranch with strange morphology, I jumped at the chance. This ended up being the perfect project for me because I get to do impactful research and study this unique species.

Young of the year sawfish sampled in Everglades National Park


3.     How do you go about getting into graduate school and finding your advisor, Dr. Dean Grubbs, and this awesome project?

Dean was recommended to me by my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Gavin Naylor. After working in his lab all four years of undergraduate and completing my bachelor’s essay on hammerhead phylogeny, I told him that I had spent enough time in the lab and was ready to move more towards a field ecology lab in graduate school. He put me into contact with Dean and we submitted a proposal for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), which I ended up being awarded. The rest, as they say, is history.

4.     Can you describe the first time you saw a sawfish in the wild?

The first time I saw a sawfish in the wild, I was beyond excited. I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s big.” I was also amazed at its power as it slashed at the water at a ridiculous speed. I also was shocked by how adorable I found it to be. I think sawfish mouths are super cute. They are the perfect blend of “I could take you out with one swipe” and “Look at that cute little face.” Honestly, I’ve seen quite a few sawfish in the wild at this point, and I still get giddy once I see that rostrum break the water’s surface. 

5.     What has been your favorite sawfish field story by far? 

The day we got two on one longline is a fond memory. Since I started my project, we’ve been getting mostly one sawfish per trip, so to see two on one line was very special. A very close second to my favorite field study was when I named a sawfish. We don’t usually name sawfish, but this particularly day we were fishing offshore near an island that is supposedly owned by Beyoncé. I personally am a huge fan of Beyoncé as an artist, so when we let this female sawfish go, I just casually said, “Bye Beyoncé,” and the name stuck. If for some reason Beyoncé reads this, I hope she thinks it’s cool to have a sawfish named after her.

Preparing to work up a female sawfish named “Beyoncé” in the Florida Keys

6.     Working in Florida I am sure you have encountered lots of local recreational and commercial fishermen. In your opinion have fishermen been open to researchers studying sawfish and bycatch or learning about your research? How do you think fishermen view sawfish and sawfish conservation in your area?

I’ve interacted mostly with the fishing guide who represents an organization of Florida fishing guides and he, as well as his colleagues, are very interested in sawfish conservation. They want them to be around and get excited when they see one. I think this generation of anglers is fairly conservation minded. There are, of course, some people who don’t like what we are doing. Fisherman are occasionally reluctant to share information on sawfish they’ve encountered for whatever reason, but I would say my experiences with anglers has been positive overall. I don’t have much interaction with commercial fisherman. However, I understand the livelihoods of many men and women depend on these industries and I keep that in the back of my mind to motivate me to not over-extrapolate or stretch my interpretations too far. 

7.     What has been the most difficult thing about your project?

The most difficult thing about my project has been learning GIS and network analysis. My data is extremely complex, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to analyze it effectively. I now have many diverse tools in my wheelhouse though, so I appreciate that.

8.     Do you want to continue to work with sawfish after graduate school? 

hope so! Even if I’m not able to continue doing research on them, I hope to continue to do outreach events and educate the public about these amazing animals.

Photo credit: Chelle Blais
Workup of a Smalltooth Sawfish in the Florida Keys.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Searching for Sawfish in the Sundarbans: An Interview with Sabrina Sabbir





Sabrina Sabbir is a researcher working with sawfish and other elasmobranchs in Bangladesh. She has just completed her M.S. from the University of Dhaka, which focused on abundance of elasmobranchs in Bangladesh. During Sabrina’s project she recorded landing records of Largetooth Sawfish in Bangladesh and is planning to continue her work with sawfish in this area, as there is still much to be learned. Check out her recent publication on some of this work here:
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329555585_Recent_records_of_large_tooth_sawfish_Pristis_pristis_Linnaeus_1758_from_Parerhat_of_Pirojpur_district_in_the_southwestern_Bangladesh

The third sawfish landed that was recorded by Sabrina



1. Can you give people a brief overview about how sawfish are involved in your graduate work?

For my M.S. thesis project, I have worked on the species abundance, landing trends and percentage contribution of elasmobranchs in the southwest region of Bangladesh. My working station was at Parerhat, Pirojpur; situated northwest of the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, where sharks and rays are mainly landed as a result of bycatch. Traditionally, people have been fishing out of Parerhat for the past 50-70 years. In this region, sharks and rays are mostly landed in the Mohipur and Dublar Char landing stations situated near the Sundarbans, only a few are brought to Parerhat for the local traders. They are irregularly landed throughout the year but regularly during the dry season, from November to March; being dried up and exported to the shark fin market of Chittagong and then placed in the international market.  On my first field visit, I could not find any fresh elasmobranch samples for data collection at the landing market, but I witnessed rows of dried shark fins, jaws and other body parts in the riverside drying factories. The large number of huge dried fins and jaws made me curious to investigate their source. It was on this trip that I collected my first sawfish saw sample. During my one-year working period, I collected about 10 landing records of Largetooth Sawfish from that small landing port and most of them were reportedly caught near the mangrove forest.

2. Were you interested in sawfishes before you began your graduate work at the University of Dhaka? If so, how/when did you first become interested in sawfishes?

Since I was a teenager, I wanted to work on behalf of the voiceless innocent souls of animals. Fascination and love for the animal world grew in me from childhood. The mysterious underwater world of the ocean has always been a source of attraction to me. Before starting my graduate work, my supervisor sent me on a field trip with a research team at Cox’s Bazar Fisheries Landing Station, Chittagong. I observed the landing of larger sharks, rays, marlins, crabs, and many other marine species. During this visit, a feeling of pain arose in my gut with a question of “Why are they being caught?” That question helped me to select my research topic on elasmobranchs. We were surveying for elasmobranch catches and specifically looking for the threatened sawfish. We have searched for sawfish in different landing stations and drying factories in southeast Bangladesh, but we could not find any. Later I made my first research trip to Pirojpur and there I collected my first sawfish saw sample. In two and half months, I collected two more sawfish landing records. The relatively frequent landings of this Critically Endangered fish on that small landing port encouraged me to work on the sawfish and their landings in that region. 

3. What is the attitude of fishermen towards scientists in your area? What about their attitude towards conservation?

The Fish Act of Bangladesh does not possess any restriction over catching sharks and rays while the Wildlife Protection Act (2012) does restrict the catch in and around the Sundarbans. Anglers of the southeast (St. Martin’s Island, Cox’s Bazar; Chittagong) do not have to face the restriction or threats from the coast guards. They are very cooperative towards the scientists. They play a very important role in major scientific processes by providing their time and sharing their traditional knowledge. The scenario is opposite in the southwest region, near the mangrove forest areas. The fishers here are monitored by the coast guards. They are not that open to the citizen science data collection process. In the beginning, it was very difficult for me to gain their trust. Amusingly, I had to convince them that I was not an agent for the coastguards. After gaining their trust, they helped to run the research.

4. Do you have a favorite field story you would like to share?

Collecting the first sawfish saw sample was an exceptional experience for me.
On a regular interview session with the local fishers, they were telling about an expensive fish with a large saw that was being caught by them three months ago near the Sundarbans. With immense curiosity, I asked them several questions about the morphology of that species and they were giving accurate information. I showed them a picture of a sawfish and they agreed that is what they caught. To my utter surprise, they eventually brought out the saw to show me, and then I believed them. I encountered the first ever saw of an unfortunate sawfish in my life on 17 March 2017.  It was from a juvenile Largetooth Sawfish. 

The first sawfish saw sampled and seen by Sabrina


5. Do you think stronger enforcement or more outreach would be a better start to helping reduce exploitation of sawfish in this area?

Yes, indeed. My study recorded all juvenile sawfishes captured as by-catch near the forest water, which raises an alarm for local population extinction of this Critically Endangered species. This study also suggests that the Sundarbans is an important habitat for the juvenile sawfishes but the rate that they are being caught at is posing threat to their existence. Here most of the catches remain unreported and unregulated due to the lack of proper monitoring, citizen data science programs, and strong enforcement of laws. Lack of awareness among the fishers about the importance of these critical species should be addressed by strong developmental and sustainable projects regularly. Knowledge about conservation, habitat protection and awareness among the rural fishers can hopefully change the scenario.

The second sawfish landed that Sabrina recorded


6. Do you have any advice for aspiring scientists in your area?

Stick to your passion and improve your skill. For countries like Bangladesh, funding limitation is a big issue for research work. I had to do part-time jobs to run my fieldwork. Later I got a government scholarship. It may seem tough at the beginning, but whatever it seems we have to start, we have to take the first step. We have to ask for help whatever the complication is about. 
Once I was very confused in identifying a shark species. I sent the photo to many local researchers but there was no reply. After two months, I sent an email to Dr. Samuel H. Gruber, for help. To my utter surprise, he replied to me within a few hours, and Dr. Dean Grubbs helped me to identify that species. Yes, I was surprised because it was the first email that I sent to renowned shark researchers and they answered my questions within a few hours. I am very grateful to them for their helpful contributions.  I have faced the opposite situations too. However, those situations made me stronger, helped me to stick to my goals, and inspired me to run my research work regardless of the situation.

Sabrina collecting data during a market visit



7. What do you plan on doing next? Will you be continuing to work with sawfishes in Bangladesh?

I am currently working on my research paper and hope to publish it soon.
Yes, I am willing to continue my work on sawfishes of Bangladesh, as Bangladesh lacks their morphometric, ecological and biological data assessment. As I have just finished my Master’s program in Bangladesh, I am willing to pursue higher studies to learn and improve my skill so that I can contribute in conserving this Critically Endangered species. Being the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans is the most important hotspot for the remaining sawfish population of Bangladesh and India. To conserve this threatened species, sustainable projects and outreach programs should be introduced to the local communities and specifically to the fishers who can play important roles in conservation. I had planned to run an awareness program among the fisher and retailer communities, but due to funding limitations could not achieve progress there. I am applying for small grants so that it will be easier to go forward in conserving this species.


Friday, March 22, 2019

Researching Sawfish in the Rivers of Western Australia: An Interview with Dr. David Morgan


Dr. David Morgan is a researcher for the Harry Butler Institute at Murdoch University located in Perth, Western Australia (WA).  David runs Murdoch’s Freshwater Fish Group, which monitors river systems in WA and upholds the most comprehensive database of freshwater fishes in Western Australia. Team Sawfish is another aspect of the Freshwater Fish Group and is also lead by David. Team Sawfish has been working to monitor sawfish in WA for 18 years. To learn more about the Freshwater Fish Group and Team Sawfish you can visit their website (http://www.freshwaterfishgroup.com/team-sawfish.php) and read our blog to learn more about David and his work in Western Australia.

      1. How/when did you first become interested in sawfish?

     I was interested in fish from a very young age. But as a fish biologist, I gravitated to all of Western Australia’s unusual fishes in freshwaters, and began researching mainly those threatened. It was not until 2001 when I started working on the distribution of all fishes in the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia that they really began to interest me. I heard lots of stories about Freshwater Sawfish from traditional owners and recreational fishers when I first arrived up there, which fed my interest. They are such an iconic species, and at that time I had no idea that they were as threatened as they were (globally). 

Tagging a Freshwater Sawfish in the Fitzroy River in 2011.



2.  Do you remember the first time you encountered a sawfish in the wild? Can you tell us about that experience?  

    
The first time I encountered a sawfish was in Fitzroy Crossing that was caught by Mary Aitken and Patsy Bedford during fish surveys at Geikie Gorge on the Fitzroy River. The first one I caught was a surreal experience, I caught both a Dwarf Sawfish and a Freshwater Sawfish in a net within minutes of setting it, along with a Bull Shark at Telegraph Pool in 2001. Since that time, we have caught or tagged over 1000 sawfish, each time it is memorable.
  

3. What is the current attitude of people in Western Australia towards sawfish? Do you think your work in this area has altered the public’s view of sawfish?

     The majority of people in Western Australia, particularly in northern WA are aware of what sawfish are, and most are in awe of them. I think the issue might be that they see so many sawfish, that they find it hard to fathom that most are Critically Endangered.

     There was historically many sawfish killed for their saw, however this still occurs by a minority. There is no doubt that public awareness has increased as a result of our work in the Kimberley and Pilbara (and perhaps in other states and countries), and people are aware that WA is a critical refuge for four species.  


4. For readers who are not from Western Australia, or not familiar with the area, can you explain some of the problems that sawfish are facing in WA and if there have been any changes to these threats recently?  

     Western Australia covers about one-third of the Australian continent, has over 13,000 km of coastline and is home to only 2.5 million people; 1.7 million of who live in the capital city Perth. Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world; the nearest city is Adelaide, which is over 2,600 km to the east. 

     The north of the State (Pilbara and Kimberley), where the four species of sawfish live, is populated by less than 100,000 people, so human impacts have historically been low. Most of the mangroves and river mouths are intact. The historical main threat was commercial fishing, yet in recent times, the Pilbara in particular is becoming increasingly developed, with ports being built and increased population growth related to mining and salt export facilities. River regulation has had a major impact to Freshwater Sawfish in the Ord River. 

5.  Can you tell us about your favorite or most interesting sawfish field story? 

     It’s hard to pick a favorite, so I might mention a few. Catching and tagging sawfish with my kids is always memorable, as are the moments that a huge saltwater crocodile presents itself. I think the first time that Jeff Whitty joined our group in 2007, we pulled up to an estuarine site on the Fitzroy River (after driving 2,500 km from Perth) and with the Yiriman Rangers, we caught over 30 Freshwater Sawfish pups in just a few hours, all with hand lines. I think Jeff thought, this stuff is easy. The Fitzroy River is such an amazing river, and all field trips involve camping out for extended periods. Camping out amongst the tranquility of Geikie Gorge, an ancient Devonian reef, is hard to beat.

This is one of my favorite photos from a sawfish trip – my son Charlie with Cani Watson and a Freshwater Crocodile in the Fitzroy River.



6. Can you talk a little about the traditional owners and rangers you work with and their importance to your research? 

     I started working with the traditional owners on the very first field trip to the Fitzroy River, and I have maintained that collaboration for 19 years now. It is very rewarding and I have many great friends in the Kimberley as a result. It started in 2001 where we collated all the fish names in 5 languages (Bununba, Gooniyandi, Ngarinyin, Nyikina and Walmajarri) with the help of the Kimberley Land Council and the Kimberley Language Research Centre, who at the time were also making dictionaries for the different languages. The Kimberley is a hotspot of Aboriginal languages and the Fitzroy River is central to many cultural aspects and an important place for hunting and fishing. In 2005 I started working with the Yiriman Rangers (who are now the Nyikina-Mangala Rangers) and we became known as Team Sawfish.

Team Sawfish at Geikie Gorge (Photo: P. Billan)

7. Do you have any updates on ongoing sawfish projects/outreach that you can tell us about or do you have any new projects that you are working on?

     We are at the stage where we are collating 18 years of catch data for the Freshwater Sawfish in the Fitzroy River; with some pretty surprising results. We are also planning to revisit our work on the Green Sawfish in the Pilbara, and I think the Dwarf Sawfish research in the Kimberley needs attention. As with anyone researching sawfish, funding is pretty hard to get, our 18 years of sawfish research has been funded by many different organizations. 

     With the realization that north-western Western Australia is a globally significant hotspot for at least three species, that is undergoing human and industrial expansion, now is the time to support the conservation of sawfish in the area.

     In terms of outreach, we recently published a book on the fishes of the Kimberley, which includes a chapter on sawfishes. We visit schools and community groups to talk about sawfish and other things fishy, and we will continue to work with Aboriginal Rangers in Team Sawfish. We also assisted with creating a number of signs  (see below) around the Fitzroy River. Outreach into the Pilbara region is urgently required, as much of the human population is a transient fly-in fly-out workforce, many from the eastern states, who encounter sawfish while fishing, and are not familiar with their conservation status.