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:

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 ( 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.

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.