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HomeGeneralRescue Efforts Begin as Endangered Sawfish Are Spinning and Dying in Florida...

Rescue Efforts Begin as Endangered Sawfish Are Spinning and Dying in Florida Waters

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Sawfish
Source: @Firebrandstan/X

Endangered small-tooth sawfish, which have remained virtually unchanged for millions of years, are displaying unusual behavior and experiencing increased mortality rates in Florida waters.

Federal and state wildlife agencies have initiated efforts to rescue and rehabilitate sawfish to investigate the reasons behind this phenomenon. The erratic spinning behavior and elevated mortality rates have raised concerns about the well-being of these marine creatures.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced an “emergency response” focused on the Florida Keys starting next week. A NOAA news release called the effort unprecedented.

“If the opportunity presents itself, this would be the first attempt ever to rescue and rehabilitate smalltooth sawfish from the wild,” said Adam Brame, NOAA Fisheries’ sawfish recovery coordinator.

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Sawfish belong to the same family as rays, skates, and sharks. They are characterized by their elongated, flat snout, which features a row of teeth on each side. These creatures have a long lifespan and can reach impressive sizes, with some individuals growing up to 16 feet (about 5 meters) in length.

Historically, sawfish were distributed along the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic coasts in the U.S. However, their habitat has significantly diminished over time, and they are now primarily found in southwestern Florida and the Keys island chain. A closely related species of sawfish is also found off the coast of Australia.

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Since late January, state wildlife officials have been documenting what they call an “unusual mortality event” that has affected about 109 sawfish and killed at least 28 of them. There have been reports of abnormal behavior, such as the fish seen spinning or whirling in the water. Other species of fish also appear to have been affected.

“We suspect that total mortalities are greater since sawfish are negatively buoyant and thus unlikely to float after death,” Brame said. Officials have yet to identify a specific cause for the erratic behavior and increased mortality rates observed in sawfish populations.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, necropsies conducted on sawfish have not indicated any pathogen or bacterial infections. Additionally, there have been no indications of issues related to low water oxygen levels, contamination from chemicals, or toxic red tide.

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Water testing efforts are ongoing as authorities investigate the mysterious decline of sawfish populations. The cause of deaths and unusual behaviors in sawfish populations remains unclear.

Experts are unsure if these phenomena are linked to a prolonged summer heatwave in Florida waters, believed to be driven by climate change. Elevated water temperatures have also caused marine damage, such as coral bleaching and fatalities among ocean species.

Wildlife agencies are collaborating with three organizations to rehabilitate rescued sawfish. One of them, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium said in a news release that even relatively small numbers of sawfish deaths could significantly impact the population, which has been listed as endangered since 2003.

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