Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Sawfish research in Mexico, Central and South America

By Ruth H. Leeney

Two sawfish species – the smalltooth and largetooth sawfishes (Pristis pectinata and P. pristis) – are known to have occurred historically in Caribbean and Central American (Atlantic) coastal seas, whilst only the largetooth sawfish is known from the eastern Pacific. The current status of sawfishes in the waters of Mexico, Central America and the west coast of South America is poorly understood. Until recently, little up-to-date information was available from these regions but happily, since 2014, numerous research projects have developed to address these data gaps. Many of these projects are multi-country collaborative efforts, which facilitates the sharing of resources and expertise. In my role as Sawfish Conservation Coordinator for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, I recently compiled information about the sawfish research projects underway in Mexico, Mesoamerica and South America, and put the various researchers and teams involved in contact with each other where necessary. The information I received from teams working on sawfish projects is summarised below, but if you are working on sawfishes in these regions and don’t see your project mentioned here, please do get in touch!
Image from

In Mexico, Océanos Vivientes AC is conducting a nationwide survey of historical and current presence of sawfishes, in order to evaluate the conservation status of sawfishes in Mexico. The team hopes to work towards a change in Mexican legislation relating to sawfishes. Océanos Vivientes is also collaborating with Conservation International to develop sawfish research in Colombia.

MarAlliance is working in Belize, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras and on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. Their work on sawfishes is part of a broader programme which involves working closely with fishing communities to monitor marine megafauna, especially elasmobranchs. They hope to assess the current existence of sawfishes in each of their study regions, document historical occurrence, distribution and local uses of sawfishes, and identify strategies to encourage the recovery of any remaining sawfish populations.

A largetooth sawfish (c. 5.6 m total length) captured off northern Peru, and released alive, in
February 2015.
In Peru, Planeta Océano launched a sawfish research programme in early 2015, in collaboration with my organisation, Protect Africa's Sawfishes. This involved a short training programme covering aspects of sawfish ecology and conservation, as well as interview methods for assessing the status of sawfish populations. The training course attracted participants not only from Peru but also from Ecuador and Colombia. Following the training, course participants and Planeta Océano staff conducted interviews at numerous fishing ports and landings sites in northern Peru, and interviews will be conducted further south, later this year. Very recent captures of largetooth sawfish have occurred in northern Peru, including one adult caught and released alive in February 2015. Planeta Océano has also built collaborative links with teams in Ecuador, El Salvador and Costa Rica, supporting them to collect data on sawfishes using similar methods, and developing community awareness activities and educational materials on sawfishes, to be used throughout the region. Planeta Océanos’ collaborators at the Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manabí (Ecuador), led by Dr. Rigoberto Rosas-Luis, have already conducted 429 interviews with fishermen throughout Ecuador. The most recent capture of a sawfish there was in 2014, in San Lorenzo, northern Ecuador. 
Dr. Rosas-Luis interviewing fish vendors in northern Peru.

Fundación Talking Oceans and the Smithsonian Institution is conducting sawfish research in Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador. They aim to assess the current distribution and conservation status of sawfishes in the ETP, as part of a wider project to identify and map elasmobranch critical habitats and assess MPA effectiveness. Fundación Talking Oceans are working with a number of collaborators including Marviva, WWF, USAID-BIOREDD, Universidad de Costa Rica, Playa Tortuga, Malangwai, SINAC, PRETOMA, Universidad de Panama, ARAP, Planeta Océano and NAZCA. 

Juliana Lopez Angarita and a fisherman with a sawfish rostrum from a market in Costa Rica. Photograph (c) Alex Tilley.
Central and South America are also key regions for sawfish conservation for one particular reason – the cock-fighting industry. Cock-fighting is a very popular pastime in many Central and South American countries, and since the mid-1970s, sawfish rostral teeth have been the preferred source of ‘spurs’ – the sharp spikes which owners attach to the feet of their bird in order to inflict damage on the opponent. Concern has grown within the cock-fighting industry as sawfish rostra have become more difficult to obtain and the price of rostral teeth has increased significantly. However, some cock-fighting associations are now working to ban the use of spurs made from rostral material and to encourage the use of artificial spurs. In Peru, Planeta Océano is conducting interviews with members of these associations, in order to assess the frequency with which sawfish teeth are still used as spurs and to better understand how cock-fighting associations can encourage their members to use alternative materials. There may be the potential to develop outreach materials that can be used throughout the Americas in countries where cock-fighting is popular, in order to minimise any further threat to sawfishes via the demand for rostral teeth. 

Cock-fighting spurs made from plastic composites.
The collaborative nature of sawfish research in this region is a wonderful example of how, through communication and sharing of resources, numerous small research projects can result in effective data collection and better geographic cover. This collaborative approach is also creating links between NGOs, researchers and government organisations which will enable a smoother transition to the next, equally important phase of this work: developing a regional conservation strategy for sawfishes, in line with the IUCN’s Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy (Harrison & Dulvy 2014). Exciting times for sawfish research and conservation in the Americas!

Many thanks to all the researchers who provided details of their projects for this article, and to the many funders supporting this much-needed work. 
This article first appeared in the IUCN SSG's newsletter, 10th November 2015. 

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