16 Oct 2019


By Simon Miller Project Manager Sustainable Fisheries, WWF-Australia and Ashley McDonald, WWF-Australia

Hiding out beneath the murky bottom of Australia’s tropical rivers and oceans lies one of the world’s most unique and charismatic endangered species - the sawfish. Sawfish, despite having many similarities with sharks, are actually a type of ray, found in tropical estuarine and marine environments. This group of species evolved as long as 63 million years ago and are important to Aboriginal and other Indigenous cultures, providing them with food and appearing in many ancient stories. Of the five species known worldwide, four of them exist in Australia.

Across the Top End of Australia, the Endangered narrow sawfish and dwarf sawfish, exist alongside two Critically Endangered species: the green sawfish and the largetooth or freshwater sawfish. They are now mainly found in the Kimberley and Pilbara, through the Gulf of Carpentaria to the tropical river systems of northern Queensland, however, their range used to stretch as far south as the NSW coast. Some sawfish like the green sawfish can grow to reach about seven metres in length, making them one of the largest sharks and rays in Australia, but for such large and easily identifiable marine creatures, we still know very little about basic sawfish biology.

Unfortunately, our sawfish are facing a problem they cannot tackle alone. The combined threats of entanglement in fishing gear and the loss of habitat through climate change and coastal development, has greatly reduced global sawfish populations. Due to their slow growth rate and limited number of offspring, once populations are reduced, they are not easily recovered.

The 'toothed' snout that earned the species their name is covered in specialised, electromagnetic scales that help sawfish detect the movement of prey in the murky waters. This distinctively shaped snout, called a rostrum, comes in handy in slashing small fish and digging up crustaceans like prawns and crabs from the ocean floor but it is not as useful when it is getting them caught in fishermen’s nets. Once they are caught in a gill or trawl net, their rostrums become easily entangled and the sawfish either drown or succumb to stress.

Overfishing and accidental bycatch is the leading reason for the dwindling numbers of sawfish in today’s oceans. Though sawfish are protected from commercial and recreational fishing under Australian law, many sawfish are still caught accidentally in fishing nets or are illegally hunted for their fins or rostra. Even when the sawfish is caught as bycatch, fishermen often cut off the sawfish’s rostrum before attempting to free it to avoid getting injured. This brutal and inhumane practice eventually kills the sawfish through blood loss or starvation, since it needs its rostrum to feed. 

Freshwater Sawfish with rostrum removed, March 2018 on the Wenlock River, Queensland
Freshwater Sawfish with rostrum removed, March 2018 on the Wenlock River, Queensland © Supplied to WWF-Australia

It’s estimated that 2,984 sawfish, as well as many thousands of sharks, dugongs, dolphins and turtles are caught in commercial gill nets on the Queensland east coast every year. Marine wildlife like these need your help to remove these lethal nets from our oceans before it’s too late.

Last year, our supporters helped remove the last full-time commercial gill net from the northern Great Barrier Reef. This created a 385km2 haven for marine wildlife living in the area. But there are still 240 active gill net licences held along Queensland's east coast that can move in and start fishing in this precious ecosystem. That’s why we’re calling on the Queensland Government to ban commercial gill nets from the northern Great Barrier Reef.

This is a chance for us to create the largest net-free zone on the Great Barrier Reef - an 85,000km2 refuge for sawfish, dugongs and other precious marine wildlife to flourish.

In partnership with VisionDirect, we’ve upcycled 100% of the gill net we removed from the northern Great Barrier Reef last year, and turned it into super sustainable sunglasses called ReefCycle! With your support, this partnership can continue to remove nets from our oceans and save the lives of thousands of sawfish. Help us create a #netfreenorth and grab your sunnies, emblazoned with a charismatic sawfish today!

ReefCycle sunglasses made from gill net
ReefCycle sunglasses made from gill net © WWF-Australia