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Marine Science

DECLINING SAWFISH PRIORITISED FOR CONSERVATION STATUS

Declining sawfish prioritised for conservation status

Declining sawfish prioritised for conservation status

Conservation groups and scientists have welcomed news that a species of sawfish found in northern Australia has been prioritised for uplisting to endangered by the  Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley.

The largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) is the only marine species recently revealed to have made the Finalised Priority Assessment Lists (FPAL). This means it will be assessed by the Australian Government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) who will advise Minister Ley on its conservation status under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

An uplisting would mean the species should be provided greater protection under Australian environmental law, say the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) and Humane Society International (HSI). The species is being considered because of a likely decline in their numbers pushing them towards extinction.

The status of the largetooth sawfish is already assessed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) but its status in Australia is currently ‘Vulnerable’ under the EPBC Act. It is found in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. The species is capable of moving freely between rivers and oceans and spends the first four to six years of its life in river systems. Its saw-like rostrum and reliance on rivers makes it particularly susceptible to fishing, habitat loss and other human-induced pressures.

“We welcome the spotlight shone on the plight of this iconic species for Australia,” said Dr Leonardo Guida, AMCS shark scientist and campaigner.

“Like all species of sawfish found in Australian waters, their distinctive rostra means they’re easily caught in gillnets and trawler nets that scour the seafloor where they live.

“While they are protected from targeted commercial and recreational fishing, the species is still caught as bycatch. And when they are caught it is difficult to release them, often leading to their deaths.

“This species has been wiped out in other countries, and Australia is their global life-boat. We have the responsibility to do all we can to protect these animals from being killed in commercial fishing gear.”

Associate Professor David Morgan from Murdoch University, lead author of the uplisting nomination who has been studying sawfish for around 20 years, said long term monitoring in the Kimberley suggests the region may be key to species survival.

“The Fitzroy River is the last known intact nursery of the largetooth sawfish in the world and our research has shown the importance of the river to this species,” he said.

“But while we have gained knowledge of a relationship between the river and juvenile sawfish usage, our understanding of the entirely marine adult phase of the species is poor. We need to do more research into this stage to ensure their conservation.”

Marine biologist Lawrence Chlebeck from HSI said: “This uplisting is an essential step towards helping to protect one of the last viable populations in the world of this iconic species.

“There are solutions that will help sawfish – we can protect rivermouths from gillnetting, which are known habitats that are critical to the survival of these animals.”

The EPBC Act is currently under review and conservation groups are calling for the laws to be strengthened to improve protections and mandate recovery plans for species like the largetooth sawfish.

The largetooth sawfish was nominated for uplisting under the EPBC Act by AMCS.

The assessment of the species by the Federal Environment Department is due to be completed by October 2022.