Sawfish: What to do when you accidentally hook one

Posted: April 10, 2020

By Jill Christoferson, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

photo of a sawfish in deep blue water surrounded my coralWhen I started graduate school at Florida State University, I had never seen a sawfish in the wild but I was excited to be part of the recovery of a species I had been so awestruck by in aquariums.

The smalltooth sawfish, the only sawfish found in Florida, has been protected in Florida since 1992, and it was federally listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2003. While little was known about the species when it became listed, scientists have learned a lot about its biology and ecology.

As sawfish recovery efforts continue, we expect there to be more sawfish sightings, especially in Florida. This includes anglers who may accidentally catch one on hook-and-line while fishing for other species.

Sawfish Encounters

Sawfish can be encountered when participating in a number of activities, including boating, diving and fishing. One of the first things that stood out to me while conducting permitted research was the speed at which a sawfish can swing its rostrum — commonly referred to as the saw. For creatures that glide along the bottom so slowly and gracefully, they sure can make quick movements when they want to.

If you happen to catch a sawfish while fishing:

  • Do not pull it out of the water and do not try to handle it.
  • Refrain from using ropes or restraining the animal in any way.
  • It’s best to keep a safe distance between you and the saw. Never remove the saw.
  • Untangle it if necessary and release the sawfish as quickly as possible by cutting the line as close to the hook as you can.

Proper release techniques ensure a high post-release survival of sawfish. In addition to being captured on hook-and-line, sawfish can easily become entangled in lost fishing gear or nets. If you observe an injured or entangled sawfish, be sure to report it immediately, but do not approach the sawfish. Seeing a sawfish up close can be an exciting experience but you must remember that it is an endangered species with strict protections.

If you are diving and see a sawfish, observe at a distance. Do not approach or harass them. This is illegal and this guidance is for your safety as well as theirs.

An important component of any sawfish encounter is sharing that information with scientists. Your encounter reports help managers track the population status of this species. If you encounter a sawfish while diving, fishing or boating, please report the encounter. Take a quick photo if possible (with the sawfish still in the water and from a safe distance), estimate its length including the saw and note the location of the encounter.

The more details you can give scientists, the better we can understand how sawfish are using Florida waters and the better we can understand the recovery of the population. Submit reports at the Sawfish Recovery website, email sawfish@MyFWC.com or phone at (844) 4SAWFISH.

For more information on sawfish, including FWC’s sawfish research visit: MyFWC.com/research, click on “Saltwater” then “Sawfish.”