Old photos provide key details in bid to save sawfish

In August of 2021, researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) issued an appeal to the public, calling for help to plug gaps in knowledge about the ecology and distribution of the iconic, endangered sawfish: a family of rays immediately identifiable by their elongate, tooth-studded rostrums.

Building on an ongoing sighting submission campaign by Sharks and Rays Australia (SARA), scientists were seeking both new and old photos of sawfish in a bid to better understand the population dynamics through time of this distinctive ray.

Now, after six months of submissions, researchers report that the project has been enormously successful so far, with hundreds of current sightings and historical photos collated – including what may be the oldest image of a sawfish in Australia.

USC PhD student Nikki Biskis, who is collaborating with SARA on the project, says she was amazed when she came across the photo in a collection of glass slides at a museum in Hervey Bay.

“It was a photo of a sawfish caught local to Hervey Bay from the 1890s, making it the oldest picture we’ve uncovered in Australia, and the first one from this area.”

Biskis has been trawling museums and historical societies right across Queensland, uncovering a rich haul of data on sawfish distribution from these and other novel, untapped sources, such as family fishing photos.

In the process, she’s unearthed not just some important ‘firsts’, but also some poignant insight into ‘lasts’.

Biskis was contacted by a family who recognised a photo used to promote the campaign, depicting Bundaberg region fishermen with a catch of sawfish in the 1960s. It’s believed to be one of the last photos taken of sawfish in subtropical Queensland. 

“I met the family of one of the men from the photo and they were able to point out exactly where the animal was caught almost 60 years ago. I rarely get such detailed location data,” Biskis says.

“When people send through photographs of animals or saws with dates and locations from their collections, it tells a completely new story. It’s like everyone’s got a piece of this puzzle – but they don’t know it.”

And she hopes the puzzle pieces will continue to flow in, adding vital clarity to the as-yet hazy picture of these elusive and enigmatic creatures.

“Sightings and historical photos are crucial for this project,” she says.

“A lack of good historical data means no-one is really sure when the sawfish began to decline or to what extent.”

Filling in these knowledge gaps could prove crucial in refining the national recovery plan for these unique rays that was released in 2015. Biskis says the plan has not been reviewed since, and requires more extensive datasets to guide recovery efforts.

“This study can tell us where sawfish are still found in healthy numbers and assess how much populations are shrinking, which is critical data to identify the areas that are most important to species recovery, such as nurseries and migration zones.”

This initiative is already paying dividends, with the ongoing sighting submission campaign uncovering a historic breeding ground for freshwater sawfish in the Brisbane River. The new drive to incorporate historical documents adds an important temporal element, tracking populations through time.

Australia is considered a ‘life-boat’ for four – freshwater, green, narrow and dwarf – of the world’s five species of sawfish, which were once widely distributed along Australia’s east coast, down to Sydney Harbour.

Today, all four species are listed as either endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN, and their known distribution in Australian waters has shrunk to a handful of isolated pockets in Queensland. Although causes of their decline remain somewhat mysterious, a range of factors including net entanglements, trophy-taking, and altered water-flow regimes have all been implicated.

SARA Principal Scientist Dr Barbara Wueringer says the sawfish population contraction is reflected clearly in the new catalogue of images, noting that while it was “extremely exciting” to see so many historic photos come in from south-east Queensland, it was also telling that “we’re yet to see a recent image of a live sawfish south of Mackay”.

Public response to this appeal has done more than provide fresh data – it has opened up a conversation about these strange and fascinating rays that helps to build awareness of their plight.

“With sawfishes having lost over half of their habitat worldwide, and largely disappearing from the entire east coast of Australia, our biggest fear is they will vanish quietly,” Biskis says. 

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to spot a sawfish in the wild, you can report your sightings or submit photographs to SARA here. Or if you’ve got an eccentric collector in the family who has a trophy ‘saw’ mounted on the wall of the pool room, consider nudging them into donating it to SARA, where it will be invaluable for both DNA sampling and use in education and outreach.

“We want to involve everyone in data collection on these magnificent species,” says Biskis. “If you have seen or accidentally caught a sawfish, no matter how long ago, or have photos of saws, we would like to know.”

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