Distribution and Abundance

The smalltooth sawfish ranges in the western Atlantic from Brazil to Florida, including the Gulf of Mexico. It is a year-round resident of peninsular Florida and can be found in the warm summer months as far north as North Carolina, rarely straying to New Jersey. Smalltooth sawfish were once common throughout Florida waters, especially in the late 19th century to early 20th century. In the late 1800's one fisherman from near the Indian River reported capturing 300 sawfish in his net during one season. Others reported seeing hundreds of sawfish "big and little" along the west coast of the peninsula.

Although no published studies specifically documented sawfish population decline, it is thought that commercial fishing activities (e.g., gillnets, otter trawls, seines), directly and indirectly contributed to the problem. Because of their body shape, sawfish became easily entangled in these gears.

They were dangerous to handle while alive, did considerable damage to nets, and had minimal commercial value. Most specimens captured probably either suffocated or were killed. To a lesser extent, sportfishing activities may have also negatively impacted sawfish populations in Florida because sawfish saws have historically been a popular curio item.

Mortality through being caught as bycatch combined with their limited reproductive potential is what scientists believe caused the reduction in the size of the population of Florida's sawfish in the latter half of the twentieth century. Because of this, sawfish have been protected from harvest in Florida since 1992. Most recently, on April 1, 2003 the U.S. population segment of smalltooth sawfish was declared an endangered species by the National Marine Fisheries Service. This declaration gives the U.S. population of this species federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, effective May 1, 2003.

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