Sunday, June 20, 2021

Striving to Save Sawfish in Indonesia: An Interview with Sihar Silalahi

For our 2021 summer blog we had the opportunity to speak with Sihar Silalhi the Project Manager for Sawfish Indonesia. We were excited to learn more about Sihar as well as hear more about Sawfish Indonesia. With Sihar's passion for elasmobranch conservation, working with Sawfish Indonesia was a natural fit. The group has been making strides working with fishers in Indonesia and Sihar was able to share some of their preliminary findings with us!

Can you briefly explain to our readers how you got involved with Sawfish Indonesia? 

Ever since I was an undergraduate student, I have had a special affinity towards elasmobranch conservation which led me to explore various ways that I can convey my interest after graduating. So I gathered a team to brainstorm about our conservation project idea that was meant to be applied to the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP). When we were discussing the species we would like to conserve, several species came up on the list. Some of them were manta ray, whale shark, short-fin mako shark, and other endangered charismatic elasmobranchs until we realized all of them had gotten plenty of concern from various parties so far. Then, it was brought to our attention that one group was barely highlighted in Indonesia even though the international concern for their conservation is rising fervently: the sawfishes. By the time we planned our conservation project, a very limited study about sawfish in Indonesia had been conducted. Not to mention that no single conservation NGO in Indonesia had focused on sawfish-specific conservation. This may have hindered sawfish from becoming arguably the most iconic elasmobranch group in Indonesia. They have been fully protected since 1999 but did not get the national concern they deserve. We scurried to learn more about sawfish and to create a conservation project proposal for our research. We were surprised when the announcement was up because the CLP chose us amongst only 19 projects worldwide they accepted in 2020. After participating in the training that the CLP team provided, my team and I went to the project site to implement our conservation project planning. So, this is how I got involved with Sawfish Indonesia. 

The Sawfish Indonesia team (PC: Sawfish Indonesia).

Have you ever seen a sawfish in the wild? If so, can you tell us the story of this experience? If not, is there a particular species you would like to see one day and what would you say is the most difficult aspect of your research?

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see sawfish in the wild which is kind of ironic. To save them, we must first find them. But finding them is the most difficult aspect of our research so far. Water visibility in Merauke is really bad that it is impossible for us to monitor the sawfish occurrence by using boat surveys or baited remote underwater video. It also has been known that we are about 50 years too late to be able to easily encounter sawfish right on the beach across the coastal region of Merauke. Many interviewees in our social research stated that there was an enormous number of sawfish back then in the 1970s. They used to be afraid to let their children played around the beach because of the sawfish. Now as fishing pressure has increased since then, local fishers think that the sawfish have found a new place to live around the Arafura Sea, somewhere just not on the coastal area or in the river. That is probably why the several traditional surveys using gill nets we have conducted around the coastal area have led to no results and we were unable to survey further offshore in the Arafura Sea because of the high cost of boat rentals. Seeing them alive in the wild is something I would love to desperately experience one day. 

Sawfish Indonesia survey and monitor of sawfish occurrence with the local sawfish conservation ranger (PC: Sawfish Indonesia). 

Can you share one of your favorite sawfish field stories with us? It can be anything from an interaction with a fisher or just a really crazy day in the field. 

I would say holding a dead-landed narrow sawfish for the first time is my favorite sawfish field story. I know it might sound terrible, and actually, that was what I precisely felt back then. But please hang on until you have heard the story. So, there was a fisher who unintentionally caught seven juvenile narrow sawfish in two days of a fishing trip. He then landed all of them at a fishing company in Merauke that works as a fishing landing port as well. The company did not accept the sawfish to be landed there as they knew there is a law against it. So they hurried to contact a local government fishing agency who later called us and asked whether we would like to go with them to investigate the situation. I remember it was the same day when I knew our environmental DNA research had not yet succeeded to detect sawfish presence. I was really upset that day until our team was invited to investigate the recently landed sawfish. Ironically, it brings me joy to hear the news. After months of researching sawfish in Merauke, finally, I’d be able to see a sawfish and hold it with my own hands. But then my feelings started to mix inexplicably. I started realizing that this was quite a lot of sawfish caught in a short time and then I started imagining the number of sawfish that got captured every day but did not land here. I knew by scientific data and general information that the main global threat to sawfish is bycatch, but up until then this was just like a piece of normative information to me. That very moment, I experienced it and have a reflection on it. I also realized that there might be a lot of fishers out there who were not aware of the legal protection laws about sawfish and were not trained to release sawfish properly. This moment fueled me with inexhaustible enthusiasm to do what we must in Indonesia to protect one of the most threatened elasmobranch groups in the world. 

My first time to see and hold a sawfish (PC: Sawfish Indonesia).

Have fishers in your area been receptive to working with Sawfish Indonesia? Why do you think they have/have not? 

I must say that it depends on the individual. We have some cooperate fishers who have been receptive to our works and some have just not. Many factors could lead to this situation, and the main factor is the context of the individuals which somehow drives their attitudes towards the conservation of sawfish. A group of Papuan fishers, which have now become the first local sawfish rangers in Indonesia, expressed a golden statement. They agree that sawfish must be protected in any practical way to make sure their children have not only heard of sawfish, but they hope their children will be able to meet a live one someday in the future. This kind of attitude is driven by many things, and one of them is culture. Papuans are well known for their sense of pride in something that belongs to them, like language, tradition, lifestyle, and their natural resources including sawfish. Therefore, it drives them to be involved in our work to protect sawfish that live in their area. We rarely find this kind of attitude from commercial fishers who usually tend to work in industrial scale fishing and are highly affected by globalization which makes them more money driven without giving concern towards threatened marine species. But I also realize sometimes it’s also a situational problem instead of merely a people problem. 

Interviewing local fishers about their knowledge of sawfish in Merauke (PC: Sawfish Indonesia).

Do you all have any preliminary findings that you are able to share or new projects that you have started working on? 

In the past 5 months, our team has performed preliminary studies in Merauke, Papua Province, Indonesia, gathering fisher’s ecological knowledge data about sawfish using a combination of purposive random sampling and in-depth interviews. The results are stunning: the Arafura Sea is arguably the last viable habitat for the sawfish populations in Indonesia as sawfish bycatch has been occurring since the 1950s. Yet, the accidental catches of sawfishes from various scales of fisheries in the Arafura Sea are high and the current fishing dynamics show a tendency of decreasing their populations. More than half of the fishers we have interviewed (62%) stated that sawfish bycatch is less frequent than in previous years and as many as 61% also expressed that the number of sawfish bycatch is decreasing from previous years. It is obvious that national regulation alone is not enough to ensure their survival. Sawfish populations in the Arafura Sea demand an international concern to prevent future local extinction. We also confirmed the previous existence of four sawfish species occurring in Indonesian waters as we have found the rostra of green sawfish, dwarf sawfish, largetooth sawfish, and narrow sawfish from museums and individual collectors. More comprehensive research needs to be taken to validate this current existence as many believe that there is a strong indication one of four sawfish species is locally extinct in Indonesian waters (Yan et al. 2021).

The longest green sawfish rostrum we have found in Merauke (PC: Sawfish Indonesia).

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Interview with a Sawfish Lawyer: Evaluating Legal Tools to Protect Marine Species At Risk


    In our newest blog we are excited to share our interview with Olga Koubrak. Olga is a lawyer and the founder of an environmental law clinic, SeaLife Law, working on the protections of threatened species within the Caribbean. During her master’s at Dalhousie University, Olga focused on the legalities surrounding sawfish in this region and is continuing this research as a PhD candidate at Dalhousie. We were excited for the chance to talk with Olga about the joining of law and sawfish conservation so check out our blog below to learn more!

1. Can you explain to our readers a bit about your graduate research on sawfish in the Caribbean? Where in the world were you based during your master’s research? 

I was based in Halifax, Canada, for the duration of my Master’s at Dalhousie University, where I studied international legal frameworks applicable to Caribbean states. I was looking to understand whether these frameworks protect sawfishes and their habitat and I found that the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol to the Cartagena Convention was the instrument with the greatest potential to make a difference for sawfishes. This is because of the strength of its protective measures as well as the participation of countries identified as conservation priorities by the IUCN’s Sawfish: A Global Conservation Strategy. I have since become an observer to the SPAW Protocol myself and am using the findings from my research to advocate for better sawfish protections in the Caribbean.   

2. What are you working on now as a PhD student?

For my PhD, I’m evaluating the effectiveness of the UNEP’s Regional Seas Programmes (RSPs) at protecting marine species at risk. It is a much broader study than my earlier project as it is global in scale and covers all marine species threatened with extinction. I hope this project will inform the design and operation of the inter-governmental bodies tasked with administering the RSPs.  

The meeting of the Conference of Parties to the SPAW Protocol in Honduras.
The meeting of the Conference of Parties to the SPAW Protocol in Honduras.  

3. We have not interviewed many researchers working on the legal side of sawfish conservation. How did you first get involved or interested in this subject?

I have a law degree and tend to view everything through the prism of the law. As such, viewing conservation through its laws came very naturally to me. Even conceptually, the combination of law and conservation makes sense because at its core, the law is about the exercise of power and the protection of certain interests. In all areas of environmental law, we’re recognizing we need stronger legal frameworks to protect what we hold dear. Endangered species – including sawfish -- naturally fall into that category.

Showing off my handmade sawfish.

4. When in your studies did you begin SeaLife Law? How/why did you begin this law clinic?

I started SeaLife Law before I began graduate studies, while I was volunteering through the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST). It was clear to me that there was a need for access to legal information and advice in the Caribbean. Initially, I envisaged SeaLife Law as a clinic where grassroots conservation groups could get the legal support they need. But as I became more involved with sawfish and the inter-governmental organizations in the region, my focus has shifted towards advocating for effective protection and management of at-risk species within these forums. My long-term goal is to engage law students from across the Caribbean in SeaLife’s work and make environmental law a viable career option for them.  

Presenting at the regional pre-CITES preparations workshop in Dominican Republic. (Photo credit: Rebecca Regnery)

5. Have you ever seen a sawfish in the wild? If so, can you tell us the story of that encounter? If not, what is the closest you have ever come to seeing a sawfish (e.g., aquarium, museum, etc.).  

It’s my dream to see a sawfish in the wild! I saw my very first sawfish at the Ripley’s Aquarium in my hometown of Toronto. It was just chilling on top of the walking tunnel looking magnificent. The closest I’ve ever come to a live sawfish was at the outdoor aquarium at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau. I was completely mesmerized by the graceful movement of these unique fish and couldn’t stop watching them swim around.   

The closest I’ve ever been to a sawfish. 

6. What was it about the Caribbean legalities that interested you compared to focusing on Indo-Pacific legalities?

The mosaic of international and domestic laws in the Caribbean is absolutely fascinating. There is so much diversity. Plus, the Caribbean is very complex politically, economically and culturally. There are over thirty territories, some sovereign countries, other dependencies; three official languages; as well some of the wealthiest and poorest nations in the Western hemisphere.  These factors make working in the region extremely challenging and interesting at the same time. While I would love to work on sawfish in the Indo-Pacific region as well, to me the Caribbean will always have a peculiar beauty and charm!    

7. In your opinion what is the most difficult thing to consider concerning the legalities protecting sawfish? 

I think you have to be an eternal optimist to do this work. Progress is incremental and slow; it’s easy to get frustrated or disillusioned. Many countries that still have sawfish and lack legal protections tend to have other priorities for political action. Inter-governmental bodies often lack legal and institutional capacity to demand implementation of international commitments embedded in the agreements. But I have hope for sawfish in the Caribbean. As more people become aware of the plight of these iconic species, hopefully more and more countries will be willing to protect them.     

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Missing in Mesoamerica: An Interview With Dr. Rachel Graham About Bringing Sawfish Back From the Brink

        To bring back the International Sawfish Day 2020 hype we wanted to share our next SCS blog featuring Dr. Rachel Graham. Dr. Graham is head of MarAlliance, an international NGO dedicated to understanding and conserving marine life in Mesoamerica, including sawfish. MarAlliance has helped gather data to better understand the distribution of sawfish in this area and Dr. Graham provided us with some exciting updates about this work. To read more about her personal journey into the marine research and conservation field along with some sawfish related stories check out our latest blog below.

Dr. Rachel Graham of MarAlliance. 

        1Did you have a role model growing up that inspired you to work in the science field or with elasmobranchs in general? 

         My work with wildlife was kickstarted by my innate curiosity, my love of wild animals, especially those species that were marginalized or evoked fear and the unstinting support of my family to pursue anything that fascinated me. I didn’t have any specific role models guiding my marine work until later in life when I got to meet with and present my work to several of my heroes Dr. Eugenie Clark, Dr. George Schaller and Sir David Attenborough. Their encouragement gave me the oomph to get through some of work’s more challenging periods. My approach of working locally and democratizing science developed when I was a teenager from field trips to community-based projects run by my mum in Africa and the Middle East. Finally, I translated all I had learnt to coastal fishing communities, lessons that were augmented by discussions at sea with the late Dr. Bob Johannes who championed working with local fishers, valuing traditional fisher knowledge and integrating this into fisheries management and fish conservation.

        2. Can you describe what a typical day is for you?

         I feel as though my professional life is a bit Jekyll and Hyde-ish as my working days are often polar opposites. There are the office days, which as head of an international organization are consumed with organization and management of staff, projects and professional collaborations across five countries, administration and finances, fundraising, and work with partners, my boards (local and international) and donors. This work requires a high degree of multitasking and this is unfortunately the enemy of any laser-focus on any one piece of work. I try to carve out time to read papers, review data and write. Then, my other self jumps out when I am in the field, with time spent in boats or the water where we often work collecting data, training or working with fishers and colleagues. Frankly, this is where I am happiest. Occasionally, conditions in the field are comfortable with larger boats and facilities for gear, toilets and such but mostly we work in basic conditions, out of small 7m open panga style boats with outboards and limited deck space or shelter from the often unrelenting tropical sun. A key skill I have acquired over 22 years at sea: hanging my backside over the side of a moving boat for relief, despite a mostly male crew. The days are very long, with moves between sampling sites and often working into the night, especially when we are setting longlines as we wait 90 minutes for the gangions to soak before rebaiting. These boat-based periods create the camaraderie of the sea, and are wonderful grounds for training, informational exchanges, and even deep discussions. As a woman who clearly does not fit a standard mold, the boat is often transformed into a safe ground for traditional fishers where we hash out hard topics, where the men gain often novel perspectives from a woman, and sometimes even solve difficult life-impacting issues. And yes, what is discussed in the boat, stays in the boat. During the pandemic, restrictions to international and in-country travel or entry into national parks or restricted areas such as autonomous indigenous areas have curtailed most of our field work, so we have been office bound for the past 7 months. For many of the fishers I have spoken to, this pandemic period has been not only difficult economically but has also impacted their self-esteem and their health. Going out to work at sea defines who we are.

        3. What inspired you to begin MarAlliance?

         My values and vision inspired me to create MarAlliance. I was hard pressed to find a good fit with other international organizations, so I started my own. To reverse population declines and thrive, elasmos need a voice and stewardship that is built from the ground up. People on the front lines of where conservation needs to happen, in the coastal communities especially, need to be the stewards of elasmobranchs. We help by democratizing science, engaging locally, especially women, providing the tools and knowledge, working collaboratively to identify and abate threats and leveraging opportunities to build local voices and champions whom we help to connect with decision-makers and funders. In 6 years, we have built a strong and highly diverse team with programs and subprojects across 5 countries and are seeing the needle move for elasmos in multiple locations. I couldn’t be prouder of our collective work.

Dr. Rachel Graham and fishers, Nelson Ortega and Evaristo Muschamp, tagging a great hammerhead in Belize. Photo credit: Pete Oxford. 

        4. How do you think working on sawfish conservation in Central America differs from working on sawfish conservation in other parts of the globe?

        With sawfish ranges contracting globally coupled with continued declines in populations, in Central America, finding sawfish has become a needle in a haystack proposition. There are also security issues working in this region that may not be encountered in others. Most sites where sawfish have been found are both very remote and hard to access, and often overlap with illegal activities, including trade in sawfish parts and the drug trade. These sites are also home to some of the most impoverished coastal communities who have few alternatives to fishing, especially with nets, the key fishing gear that has led to sawfish demise globally. The conservation of sawfish needs to be considered in a much larger context of poverty, food security and economic opportunities. These all need to be addressed if we have any hopes of conservation practices taking root.

Mexican fisher, Henry Mezquita, trained in marine megafauna monitoring methods with MarAlliance now training other fishers in the indigenous Comarca Guna Yala in Panama as part of a successful fisher exchange program between project countries. 

        5. Do you have any advice for young women in your area that are wanting to start a career in science or specifically in elasmobranch research?

        I love to hear that young women want to join this field, there is so much work to be done to secure a future for sharks and rays. Yet there is still a long way to go, especially to ensure that more women in the tropics become field biologists and rise to decision-making positions in the fields of marine conservation and management. Building local capacities is key to ensuring that the countries with sawfish and other elasmobranch species have a strong contingent of trained scientists who can conduct research and conservation. To all embarking in this field I would say first, please do your homework, not only about elasmobranchs but also learn about the site, organization or university laboratory you may be keen to work with. Take stock of what you enjoy doing and what your skills are (ask your friends and family what you are best at). Offer to volunteer, look to see what skills are needed and try to boost skills that the organization you are interested in could use (GIS, data analyses, writing, social media, graphic design, meeting facilitation, languages and much more). You can trade these skills for more focused work with sharks and rays. If you have a really helpful skillset and the people you approach can afford it, you may be able to negotiate cost coverage for transport and food and even accommodation. Don’t expect to work in communities unless you are willing to commit significant time to a project and that you are deemed to have the qualities to work well with the team and community partners. Relationships take time to build and can be easily broken especially by young, idealistic, opinionated and overenthusiastic students or volunteers. Take any opportunity to learn what you can. During this pandemic period, there are so many courses, webinars and talks, so you can learn a ton while building your useful skills and shaping your plan to work in this field. We need so many more passionate and innovative people to drive this field forward to reverse the population declines in so many species of chondrichthyans.

        6. In your opinion, what has been the general attitude of fishermen in your area towards sawfish conservation? What about the general public?

        Most fishers we work with  in their early 20s to late 30s, have never seen a sawfish. Those 40 years old and older remember them as younger men or children, caught in their nets or those of their fathers or grandfathers. Unfortunately, it has been that long since they have been observed or captured. However, based on surveys that I have run with my team in several countries, most fishers and members of the public would like to see sawfish remain alive, only a few older fishers who have first-hand experience with the animals when these were struggling in nets noted that they are not overly keen on the recovery of sawfish populations.

Evan Cuevas, traditional fisher from Belize, and Ivy Baremore, Technical Coordinator for MarAlliance, helping to train a next gen shark scientist, Cynthia Xiu, in juvenile shark tagging. Photo credit: Rachel Graham.  

        7. Can you describe your most iconic sawfish moment that you have had thus far? It can be a moment that you had in the field or one during an outreach event, etc. just a moment that stands out to you.

        I was in a long pirogue descending the river Chucunaque in the remote Darien region of Panama when far off we could see another boat heading back upriver in haste. It was captained by the best known sawfish fisher in the region and we flagged him down as I had been keen to talk with him. Previously, he had been in a hurry and unable to talk, never slowing his boat as he raced downriver to set his nets. Yet this time he slowed and as we approached we saw that on top of the pile of nets lay a body, unmoving under the hot sun. We were clearly worried and once we approached we could tell the captain was upset. We held onto the boat when all of a sudden the body moved, and the man moaned in pain. The captain told us that they were setting nets and longlines when one of the lines hooks got badly embedded in his assistant’s hand. And there it was a huge 16/0 hook (circular I might add) was well and truly stuck into the hand. It was immediately clear that they had no choice but to make it to the closest hospital hours away for its removal and a dose of antibiotics and tetanus shots. I pulled out our first aid kit and gave him some pain relief, disinfected the wound site and hook as best as possible and bandaged it up. Since that time, the captain shared that he would be happy to be interviewed about sawfish and work with us more on the sawfish project. The fishers in our boats clearly saw that we had their backs, and our work was not all about sawfish. I tell this story as it was yet another example of how wildlife research and conservation starts with people and building relationships and trust.

Dr. Rachel Graham fixing an eDNA sample from river water filtered in the remote Darien of Panama as part of a broad search for remnant populations of sawfish. Photo credit: Megan Chevis. 

        8. Have you ever seen a sawfish in the wild? If so, please describe the event.

        After 20 years of looking for them in several countries – Belize, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Panama and Madagascar, I sadly have never seen a live sawfish in the wild and look forward to the day I do. The closest I got was when a fisher showed me the saws of three neonate sawfish he had captured 3 weeks earlier in a stretch of river we were surveying. One teammate, Megan Chevis, was called by a fisher to the scene of a large animal capture on the Pacific of Panama. The animal was already dead and carved up when she arrived. It had been the first capture that fisher had recorded in 20 years. We are hopeful though as the eDNA work we have done in additional sites in Central America has revealed remnant populations where are working with communities to locate animals to study and better protect them.

        9. Are there any new projects you are working on or interesting updates that you would like to share with the SCS community?

        Very excited to share that through surveys and eDNA work we have narrowed down two areas in Panama and Honduras where sawfish are occasionally captured. We will be working with several fishing communities in these areas to better understand how we can mitigate threats from nets, address the drivers of decline (fisheries declines, poverty, limited income alternatives) and foster both interest and stewardship of largetooth sawfish which I now call our River Guardians. What has become absolutely clear in Central America, is that only with a holistic community-centered approach will we have a chance to bring sawfish back from the brink.

Dr. Rachel Graham and Megan Chevis, Panama National Coordinator for MarAlliance, with a largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) saw that likely originated from an area around the Panama Canal. Photo credit: Xavier Graham.

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:

   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.