Prepared by Mario Espinoza, University of Costa Rica.

The Sawfish is a species of ray, a group closely related to sharks that is characterized by having an elongated face in the shape of a saw or saw, which it uses to feed and defend itself. In America, this species is distributed from Mexico to Peru, and is commonly found in a wide variety of aquatic environments such as rivers, wetlands, mangroves and coastal waters. The Sawfish is a predator that can reach a large size (more than six meters in length), so it has a very important ecological role, controlling the abundance and distribution of smaller species, and maintaining the balance and health of the ecosystems aquatic In addition, due to its great affinity for mangroves and wetlands, the Sawfish could act as an umbrella species, promoting the protection of very important environments for the early stages of species of economic interest, such as fish (snappers, corvinas, sharks), mollusks (pianguas) and crustaceans (shrimp, crabs), which use these environments as hatcheries. That is, the protection of the sawfish could help, directly and indirectly, to protect and enhance resources of fishing interest, as well as to support the ecological integrity of coastal environments for other activities such as ecotourism. However, due to overfishing, destruction and contamination of its natural habitats, this species is currently in critical danger of extinction (ie one step away from nature) according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In several countries such as Australia, the United States and South Africa, Sawfish species are protected by law, which has greatly improved their protection and has even evidenced the recovery of their populations. In addition, the legal protection of the species has driven regional and global conservation efforts. Due to the fragile state of its populations, the Sawfish was included in Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and the CMS (Convention on Migratory Species), of which Costa Rica It is a signatory member. The inclusion of a species in Appendix I of CITES legally prohibits the capture, retention and / or export of its products. Therefore, it is strictly prohibited to traffic sawfish products, including the saw (or comb), meat or other by-product. Also, according to the CMS Memorandum of Understanding, the signatory members of this convention, such as Costa Rica, should try to promote measures that improve the conservation of endangered species such as sawfish.

Due to the efforts made by the University of Costa Rica in coordination with the Congressman Frank Camacho of the Frente Amplio Party, on November 13, 2017, Costa Rica managed to ensure the legal protection of the Sawfish, through the amendment of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Law (Law 8436) and its Regulation (Decree No. 36782-MINAET-MAG-MOPT-TUR-SP-S-MTSS). In essence, this decree prohibits the capture and commercialization of this species in Costa Rican waters.

What is a Sawfish?

A sawfish is a type of ray (group of cartilaginous fish related to sharks) that has the peculiarity of having a prolongation in its snout in the shape of a saw. There are 5 species of sawfish on the planet, of which two of them are distributed in tropical and subtropical waters of the Americas (from the south of the United States / Mexico to Peru in the Pacific and Brazil in the Atlantic). In Costa Rica these two species have also been reported: (i) the small-toothed sawfish (Pristis pectinata), which was historically restricted to the Caribbean zone, and (ii) the large-tooth sawfish (Pristis pristis), which is distributed both on the Pacific coast, Caribbean and north (large rivers that flow into the San Juan River, border with Nicaragua) of the country.

What a saw for?

The saw has several uses, within them is the use as a defense against predators that share environments where the species is found such as sharks or crocodiles. The fish also uses the saw to feed and hunt its prey. The saw of the sawfish is covered by electro-receivers capable of perceiving electric fields, which help them locate their prey. The mountain range can reach more than 25% of the length of the fish, and the species present in Costa Rica (America) can be distinguished by the number of teeth (in fact they are modified scales in hard structures that are called teeth). that they have on each side of the saw. For example, the small-tooth sawfish has more than 20 teeth on each side of the saw, while the large-tooth sawfish has 20 or fewer teeth on each side of the saw.

What do the Sawfish eat?

The Sawfish feeds on fish and invertebrates such as shrimp, crabs, worms. Their prey are usually near the bottom, or are completely buried. For this reason it is that its saw works as a prey detector, which allows them to locate their food.

How much can a Sawfish grow?

As we’ve seen, the saw is a part that covers a large part of the body of the fish, however, a sawfish in its entirety can reach up to 6.5 meters long. Many times they are called together with other marine animals as part of the “marine giants”.

What is the curiosity of the Sawfish in its behavior?

They are usually nocturnal animals, very passive and harmless to humans. Because they are a type of skate, sawfish spend most of their time near the bottom. These species are able to remain immobile for hours on the bottom until it is time to look for food or shelter. It is very rare to see them swimming near the surface.

How do a Sawfish reproduce?

These fish are ovoviviparous, which means that the female carries the eggs in her belly until they hatch. The reproductive age of the fish is approximately ten years of age. Its reproduction is not as continuous as in other fish so the fishing of these fish is a great threat to its reproduction.

Where do a Sawfish live?

This fish has the peculiarity of living in both freshwater and saltwater environments of tropical regions. There are few species of sharks and rays that can move between marine-coastal environments and sweet algal environments. Therefore, the sawfish has been a species capable of colonizing a great diversity of environments such as rivers, wetlands, mangroves and coastal waters. Here in Costa Rica one of the most important places for the are the wetlands. The Térraba-Sierpe wetland, for example, contains one of the most important populations in the country. It can also be found in areas of the Pacific such as, for example, the Nicoya Peninsula, the San Juan River and in some parts of the Caribbean as well.

What are the main threats of the Sawfish?

Among the most important threats (ordered by importance) can be highlighted:

Directed fishing and not directed (or accidental) for meat consumption or for the extraction of your saw. Historically, sawfish species were overfished by people who wanted to extract the saw to use as a trophy or adornment.
Destruction, modification and contamination of their natural habitats. Sawfish are among the species most vulnerable to the loss, fragmentation or contamination of their habitats, as they live in coastal environments or inland waters, where a large number of human activities are carried out that endanger them. In addition, it has been demonstrated that sawfish have a great affinity to ecosystems such as wetlands and mangroves, and if these environments are destroyed or contaminated, the species would be impacted.
Illegal traffic of parts of the sawfish. In the world there are black markets where the saw or teeth of the saw are trafficked illegally. In America the teeth of the fish are trafficked illegally to be used as spurs in cockfights, another illegal activity.
Climate change. Due to climate change, many of the coastal and riparian ecosystems such as wetlands, mangroves and rivers face significant changes in flow, sedimentation, warming, etc., which could directly or indirectly affect the species.