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Cape Haze at nexus of American sawfish revival

February 23, 2024
By Garland Pollard

We reside in a sawfish aquarium, Charlotte Harbor. It’s Jurassic Park, and you don’t have to visit Universal Orlando.

Last Thursday, sawfish expert Tonya Wiley delivered a talk in Cape Haze as part of a new Lemon Bay Conservancy lecture series.

Wiley, from Havenworth Coastal Conservation in Bradenton, is a world expert on the habits and future of the sawfish, which have resided in these waters for the past 90 to 100 million years. Observing one in these increasingly clear waters leaves no doubt that it was a vicious world back then, and only the most clever survived.

Sawfish were once widespread from North Carolina to Texas, with two species present here before 20th-century habitat destruction. The smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata, still exists, but Wiley envisions a revival of the largetooth sawfish (Pristis perotteti).

Globally, there are five other types, but in Charlotte Harbor, we have a robust population of smalltooth sawfish. Due to the estuaries and minimal development, Charlotte Harbor is the true stronghold.

The sawfish deserves star status, primarily because of its tooth-embedded rostrum, resembling more of a chain saw than a traditional saw. One might even better call it a chainsaw-fish, and wonder if Mr. Stihl and Mr. Homelite used him for inspiration.

Wiley’s talk covered basic facts about the sawfish and revealed that there is still a lot that is not known about them. Part of the discussion delved into the cultural fascination with sawfish, evident in movies and television during the COVID era. Screen shots featured sawfish rostrums in iconic films like “Jaws” and “The Crown,” where a young Prince Philip had one hanging on his office wall.

Wiley collected trophy photograph images of caught sawfish from microfilmed newspapers throughout Florida history to determine record sizes and population scope. During the talk, she even presented a photo of what she believes is the largest historical sawfish in Florida. 

The challenge lies in the fact that sawfish only reproduce after reaching about age 10 and can have only around a dozen pups. With a gestation period of approximately a year, it’s evident why the sawfish population is in decline. The government designated them endangered in 2003, the first marine fish to receive such status.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recognizes Charlotte Harbor as “an important nursery and research area for smalltooth sawfish,” specifically due to high water temperatures and the harbor’s preference for shallow waters – sawfish thrive in water at least 70°F in temperature and shallower than three feet, where they are protected from sharks.

The GICIA has been working to utilize acoustic receivers within Mercabo Cove to determine whether the endangered smalltooth sawfish use the Cove following its extensive restoration. Working with Dr. Locascio, nine of GICIA’s tags have been used with successful tagging of both sawfish and snook. In Dec. 2022, seven smalltooth sawfish had been detected within the restoration area. 

Sawfish belong to the Rajiformes order, flattened fish, and are related to rays and skates. Wiley showcased drone videos illustrating a sawfish’s meandering path, using electrical pulses to locate fish, which they hit and impale with that spiny rostrum.

Unfortunately, the rostrum cannot regenerate, so if it’s cut off for souvenirs, trinkets or dubious Asian pseudo-medicine, the bloodied sawfish might as well be dead.

Mr. and Mrs. Sawfish are equally ruthless in their treatment of prey. No Texas chainsaw massacre movie sequel is more dramatic than the process by which these creatures kill, feeding from mouths on their undersides Despite the gruesome dismemberment, a photo of their undersides reveals a smiling mouth and botox lips. So deceptive!

During the lecture, Wiley presented a new educational video explaining what to do if you accidentally catch a sawfish: Cut the line quickly and do not pull out of water.

Sawfish are making a recovery here, reclaiming their old colonial territories. The fish venture from Charlotte Harbor up to Tampa Bay, where significant investments in water quality have aided estuary recovery. Few would willingly leave these waters in February for Tampa, but Mr. and Mrs. Sawfish are on a mission to reclaim territory.

Wiley represents a new type of environmentalist, driven by enthusiasm and hope rather than fear. 

Lecture organizer Rob Robbins, in his introduction, boldly called Cape Haze the capital of marine research, acknowledging the early work of the Bass Laboratory and later Cape Haze Marine Lab, now named Mote. The lecture took place in the modernist Cape Haze Community Center, built by the Vanderbilt Brothers for expressly this sort of purpose. 

This spring, attend one or more of the upcoming talks:

Feb. 22: Manta Rays, Dr. Jessica Pate

March 14: Blue Green Algae, Dr. Larry Bland

April 11: Roseate Spoonbills, Dr. Jerry Lorenz.

Garland Pollard is the editor of the Boca Beacon. Email letters to