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The power of location knowledge for understanding smalltooth sawfish in the Bahamas!

By Tristan Guttridge, 8th February 2024

Very few people have had the privilege of encountering a sawfish, indeed there are only a handful of locations where they can be reliably found in the Atlantic Ocean. One of these special places is Andros Island in the Bahamas. It is both the largest and least densely populated island of the archipelago supporting vast expanses of pristine mangrove, seagrass, and coral reef ecosystems. Over the past decade, research efforts in Andros have yielded valuable movement and size data on smalltooth sawfish. However, their low abundance and use of remote habitats has restricted scientific progress to north-western Andros. The cryptic nature of sawfishes coupled with their rarity has made data collection extremely challenging. Yet, Andros Island is a popular recreational fishing location and guides regularly spend >200 days on the water annually.

Stunning scenery whilst on the hunt for Critically Endangered smalltooth sawfish. Photo © Dr Tim Jackson Bue

For the past 5 years our team from non-profit Saving the Blue has developed relationships with various community members in Andros Island. From informal discussions, we have learnt that many fishing guides have encountered sawfish; their knowledge of the species is a very important source of data. To date we have recorded 138 sightings and captures, including sawfish of all life stages and importantly a further 18 from 2023! Interestingly, they are distributed throughout the entire island, and like other studies are found in shallow (< 2 meters / 6 feet), muddy flats, close to shore (<1 km).

Cruising the picturesque creeks of west Andros whilst in search of Critically Endangered smalltooth sawfish. Photo © Dr Tim Jackson Bue

One sawfish, pictured here in the waters of Central Andros in November was estimated at 14ft and was spotted cruising the open flats. A local fishing guide encountered it with his guests and communicated to our team on our most recent sawfish expedition to the island. On this trip we met with many of the guides, hosting an informal workshop and discussing their experiences with sawfish on the water. This local knowledge and engagement are crucial to helping to delineate essential habitats for sawfish in the region. Furthermore, the fishing guides are supportive of sawfish gaining national protection and with recent discussions ongoing in the Government about adding sawfish to the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary legislation we are hopeful that this will be a reality in 2024.

Informal sawfish workshop Cargill Creek, Andros Island, The Bahamas. Photo © Tristan Guttridge

The sawfish is an iconic animal often revered culturally, and an encounter with one is an everlasting memory. Our team hopes to grow this reverence in Andros through regular communication with waters users as well as school visits and further workshops to empower Androsians to conserve this remarkable species.

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