DUBAI // Sawfish were once so common in the Gulf that the animals, which have a long, flattened rostrum lined with sharp teeth, were considered a hazard for fishermen working in Dubai Creek before it was dredged in the 1960s.
While in Bahrain around the same time the island’s beaches were often littered with their toothed beaks, some more than a metre in length.
These days, the population has declined so rapidly that sawfish - which can reach seven metres in size - are the most threatened family of marine fish in the Gulf and worldwide. All five known species are now classified as endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The decline was first observed in the 1980s and, like in other parts of the world, fishing with plastic gill nets in which a sawfish’s long beak can easily get entangled, is the main factor.
“The massive decline of sawfish in the Gulf, as elsewhere in the world, is likely to be largely as a result of plastic gill nets becoming widely available in the second half of the 20th century,” said Dr Alec Moore, British researcher and Indian Ocean Vice Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group Research.
“These, combined with small vessels powered by outboard motors, are now found throughout the entire Gulf, with few refuges.”
Work by Dr Moore in the Gulf shows sawfish can now be considered extinct as a functional component of coastal ecosystems. His study is the most exhaustive to date. He spent 11 years going through archaeological data and historical accounts, studying fish markets, landing sites and museums.
Development of coastal areas is another factor that negatively affects shallow areas the sawfish rely on for feeding and nursery areas, said Dr Moore.
Sawfish are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which bans trade in them. In the UAE, legislation also requires they are protected from fishing, alongside with other CITES-listed rays and sharks, and must be released in case they are caught incidentally.
“These measures are a great first step forward and the UAE is to be congratulated on them,” said Dr Moore. “However, much more work is necessary to strengthen them. Widespread education of fishermen and the wider public is essential - many people simply don’t know what a sawfish is or looks like, how critically endangered they are, or how to safely release them without harm to either sawfish or fishermen,” he said.
Like sharks, sawfish fins are harvested for fin soup, highly popular in Asia. This, said Dr Moore, means efforts need to be put in place to enforce the existing regulations protecting them.
“Sawfish fins are amongst the highest valued fins for the shark fin soup trade - so it is no surprise that, if caught, fishermen are reluctant to return them alive and intact,” he said.
“Enforcement of laws - such as prosecution for landing sawfish - is also needed. In many places around the world, sawfish are protected ‘on paper’, but in reality no real protection exists.”
More needs to be done in terms of scientific research, too. Currently, not enough is known about the breeding areas critical for the species, or seasons that are particularly important in their lifecycle.
Among the measures to protect sawfish are also efforts to protect mangroves, which are known “to be vital to sawfish elsewhere in the world”.
Updated: October 25, 2014 04:00 AM