The blindfold lady justice with sword and scales is the iconic representation of objectivity and fairness in the west. Yet, for many West Africans the sawfish is the symbol of justice. Sawfishes are immediately recognizable because of their long toothed rostra or saw, which makes up around a quarter of their overall body length. This saw-like rostrum, a flat broad blade with large paired teeth projecting from each side, is swung from side-to-side to sift through muddy sediments for bottom-dwelling invertebrate prey. Occasionally, the waiting sawfish will slash at and stun unwary fishes. The impartiality with which sawfishes slash at their prey, irrespective of size or species, gives rise to its fame as the evenhanded administrator of justice.
Thus begins a new article by Sawfish Conservation project leader Nick Dulvy of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group. While once widespread and featured in myth and folklore, today all seven recognized species of sawfish are categorized by the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered worldwide. Though they were once targeted in fisheries in some areas of the world for their meat, today they primarily face the different challenges of entanglement in fishing nets and shark finning, as sawfishes (along with wedgefishes and guitarfishes) have some of the most highly-valued fins in the fin trade:
...nowadays catching a sawfish is like winning the lottery for artisanal fishers, a set of fins from catching a single sawfish generated enough income to allow a Kenyan fisherman to retire.
Nick concludes by placing sawfish conservation within the context of “wicked problems” – problems to which there are no easy solution. In this case, the problem involves balancing the livelihoods of fishermen in some of the world’s least developed countries with the need to protect our biodiversity. And while we don’t have the solutions just yet, Nick points to upcoming meetings as a potential step forward to solving this wicked problem:
This week the IUCN Shark Specialist Group is gathering thirty of the world’s sawfish experts at the Zoological Society of London to brainstorm plausible conservation actions and to chart a secure future for sawfishes. The conservation actions from our meeting will be presented at a side event of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Committee on Fisheries (FAO COFI) in July 2012 and at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September 2012. These small, but important, steps will ensure that justice is served for sawfishes before it is too late.
The full article is available on the IUCN website here.