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Legend, Lore, & Legacy: The Sawfish Scenario

The sawfish — which has survived 56 million years — is fast disappearing from Texas waters.

By Larry Bozka

Although I’ve been fishing the Texas Coast for more than 30 years, I had never seen a sawfish until I went to Costa Rica in 1984. Local fishermen at the mouth of the Rio Colorado had caught one on a massive, wide-gapped hook tied to a heavy cotton hand-line and dragged it to shore, where it thrashed its scythe-like tail and grunted in protest. Its paddle-like rostrum, studded with enormous teeth, was five feet long.

A half-dozen Costa Rican Army volunteers gathered around the huge beast, jubilant. Only one, the officer in charge, was older than 20. One of the excited lads told another that the villagers would eat well that night. Another lowered a brand-new Uzi and spit a stream of bullets into the leviathan’s head. The birds that had been squawking in the jungle were suddenly still. The soldiers posed for photos. One of them fetched a machete and chopped off the bill.

The villagers would feast, and the bill would be a rare souvenir. Such celebrations are not likely to happen often. Though once numerous all along the Gulf Coast, the sawfish is disappearing, a victim of fishing nets and its peculiarly attractive size and ugliness.

Sawfish populations have dwindled so drastically that I don’t expect to ever see one along the Texas Coast. In April 2002, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed the smalltooth sawfish be listed as an endangered species.

“However,” says Edith Erling, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Houston office, “the proposal has never been finalized. We’re still in the information-gathering process.”

Since 1984, field information regarding the species has been scarce as sawfish teeth. According to Billy Fuls, resource monitoring program specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department field station in Corpus Christi, the Texas Coast once was home to both the smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata, and the largetooth sawfish, Pristis pristis. “We have caught two smalltooth sawfish in bay samples,” Fuls says, “a 51⁄2-footer taken in a trammel net in Matagorda Bay during August 1979 and a 5-footer in a gill net in Aransas Bay in April 1984.”

Legendary Texas saltwater angler Gus Pangarakis landed a 739-pound sawfish off Galveston Island on January 1, 1939. The fish was a state record. It still is, and likely will remain, a record ad infinitum. Biologists estimate that the species — actually two separate species — no longer exists in 90 percent of its former territory.

“The smalltooth sawfish is a shallow-water species that has about 24 teeth on each side of the saw,” Fuls explains. “The tropical largetooth sawfish has larger but fewer teeth, and is endemic to Gulf shores. Though they now are very rare, both species used to be fairly common along the Texas Coast.”

Perhaps the most solid evidence of the Texas sawfish legacy can be seen on the outside wall of a Rockport barbershop on Austin Street. When the southern exterior was being prepped for a paint job, the painting of a 17-foot-long sawfish was revealed. Local legend has it that the gargantuan beast was caught in a shrimp trawl by two Palacios fishermen working on Matagorda Bay during the summer of 1927 or 1928. Local lore has it that the fish sported a girth of 61⁄2 feet and weighed close to 2,000 pounds.

In Texas and worldwide, amazingly little information is available on the estimated seven species of sawfish that have survived since the creatures first began to evolve in Eocene oceans and estuaries some 56 million years ago. Roughly 40 species have been identified, many through fossil remains.

Smalltooth sawfish commonly reach 18 feet in length; rare specimens have reportedly grown to an incredible 25 feet. Like largetooth sawfish, which grow as long as 23 feet, they have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years. Females of both species do not become sexually mature until age 10.

Therein lies the sawfish chain’s weakest link. A mature female sawfish, even in the best of environments, can produce only 15 to 20 “pups” a year. Born into shallow waters, the pups make easy meals for predators, particularly sharks.

Meager reproduction and predation have hurt the species. Ironically, though, the same “teeth” that sawfish use for feeding and defense are the features that hastened their decline.

Though they resemble sharks, sawfish actually are ancestors of rays known as “batoids.” Like sharks, and due to a protective layer of enameled scales called “dermal denticles,” their skin is as rough as sandpaper.

While sharks indeed sport real teeth, the “teeth” of sawfish actually are modified scales. As they enlarge with the passage of time, they become more and more embedded in the fish’s paddle-like rostrum. Those teeth have been a major source of trouble for the species. While coastal development has exacted a toll, commercial fishing has proved to be the fishes’ downfall.

With paddle-mounted teeth seemingly custom-grown for snagging nets, sawfish have been extremely vulnerable to commercial fishing. Though such catches are deemed “incidental” by NMFS biologists, post-World War II shrimp trawls, gill nets, trammel nets and seines have devastated sawfish. By the 1960s the decline was apparent. By the ’70s the NMFS estimated the species had dwindled to 1 percent of what existed less than 100 years ago.

Though bizarre and even fearsome, the physical appearance of sawfish is deceiving. They feed exclusively on bottom-dwelling invertebrates and small forage fish, sweeping their rostrums on the seabed to both sense and stun unwitting prey. That’s not to say, however, that the unsuspecting wader wouldn’t be seriously injured were he or she to unwittingly stray into the path of a mature, bottom-sweeping sawfish. Quite the contrary. Anything that has large, protruding teeth and weighs 1,000 pounds can hurt you, intentionally or otherwise. If there is anything to worry about, however, it’s the sad state of the species in the new millennium. Your likelihood of encountering a sawfish today is probably — just like the creatures themselves — nigh non-existent. Somewhere, there is a lesson to be learned by this. Unfortunately, in the case of the sawfish, it may well be a class taken far too late in the course of our education. O

Freelance writer Larry Bozka is currently working on a book about coastal fishing in Texas.

Editor’s Note: For information on Gulf of Mexico sawfish stocks and updates on pending measures to protect the species, log on to the National Marine Fisheries Service Web site: <www.nmfs.noaa.gov/ prot_res/species/fish/Smalltooth_sawfish.html>.

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