The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has released a global strategy to prevent extinction and promote recovery of sawfishes.

The strategy by the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group was launched at the Sharks International conference in South Africa and coincides with announcements that two West Africa countries – Guinea and Guinea Bissau – are proposing the listing of sawfishes under the Convention on Migratory Species in November, which could significantly boost protections.

Sawfishes have been devastated worldwide by overfishing and habitat loss. “The sawfishes, revered for millennia by coastal cultures around the world, now face greater extinction risk than any other family of marine fish,” the strategy’s co-author, Dr. Nick Dulvy, said. “With this comprehensive strategy, we aim to reignite sawfish reverence and spark conservation action in time to bring these iconic species back from the brink” he added.

Sawfish are very large – reaching up to 7 m. These shark-like rays have distinctive, toothed, snouts from which they get their name. All five species are classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They live in coastal tropical and subtropical waters worldwide, including estuaries and river systems as well as the oceans.

“Although these species are perilously close to extinction in many regions, there are some fairly simple ways to help populations recover. For example, we know that sawfish can actually survive capture quite well if handled properly, and hence, basic education of commercial, subsistence, and recreational fishers is central to our conservation strategy,” said Dr. Colin Simpfendorfer, Professor of Environmental Science at James Cook University in Queensland.

The toothed rostrum (snout) makes sawfish especially prone to entanglement in fishing nets. As many live in estuaries, coastal development and loss of habitat is another factor that has depleted populations. Like other sharks and rays, their slow growth – taking 10 years to reach maturity – makes for a vulnerable population.

To compliment an existing ban on commercial international sawfish trade, the Strategy calls for national and regional actions to prohibit intentional killing of sawfish, minimise mortality of accidental catches, protect sawfish habitats, and ensure effective enforcement of such safeguards.

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