The Sawfish is a species of ray, closely related to sharks, that is recognized by having an elongated face in the shape of a 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, like controlling the abundance and distribution of smaller species and maintaining the balance and health of the aquatic ecosystems. In addition, due to its great affinity for mangroves and wetlands, the Sawfish could act as an umbrella species. It promotes the protection of very important environments for the early stages of species of economic interest, such as fish (snapper, corvinas, sharks), mollusks (pianguas), and crustaceans (shrimp, crabs), which use these environments as hatcheries. In other words, 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 (a step away from disappearing 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 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 deputy 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 of its snout in the shape of a saw. There are five species of sawfish on the planet, and 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 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, the Caribbean coast, and in the North Zone of the country around large rivers that flow into the San Juan River, along the border with Nicaragua. 

What does a Sawfish eat?

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 catching of these fish is a great threat to its reproduction.

How much can a Sawfish grow?

As we’ve seen, the saw 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 have been called “marine giants”, together along with other marine animals.

What is the saw for?

The saw has several uses, including the use as a defense against predators that share the 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 saw range can reach more than 25% of the length of the fish. 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.

How does 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 catching of these fish is a great threat to its reproduction.

Where does 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 fish 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 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) are:

  1. Directed and not directed (or accidental) fishing for meat consumption or for the extraction of its saw. Historically, Sawfish species were overfished by people who wanted to extract the saw to use as a trophy or adornment.
  2. Destruction, modification, and contamination of their natural habitats. Sawfish are among the most vulnerable species to the loss, fragmentation, or contamination of their habitats, since they live in coastal environments or inland waters, where many 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.