Committee of the Islands

Keeping Sanibel Special Since 1975

Can the Smalltooth Sawfish save our bay?

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June 17, 2010

Can this fish save our bay from freshwater pollution ? By Susie Marks , Committee of the Islands Photo by David Iliff You are looking at a smalltooth sawfish , an endangered species that finds its home in the waters of south and southwest Florida . And that endangered status may be the key to protecting Sanibel''s waterways against the pollution of freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee . More on that in a moment , but first some background on this exotic looking fish and its predicament , based on research by the Environment Committee of The Committee of the Islands … . The smalltooth sawfish ( Pristis pectinata ) , along with sharks , rays and skates , belongs to a group of fish called elasmobranchs , whose skeletons are made of cartilage . The sawfish is actually a modified ray with a flattened shark - shaped body and a flat , toothed rostrum or saw with 22 - 32 pairs of small sharp teeth . The saw measures a quarter of the length of the fish''s body . It is covered with motion - sensitive pores that allow the sawfish , in murky water , to detect the movements and even the heartbeats of prey . It will grub on the bottom to uncover small crustaceans , crabs , shrimp , and fish . Little is known about the life history and reproductive behavior of this fish , but females are known to give birth to 15 - 20 live pups . The saws of the newborns are sheathed and malleable at birth for protection . In Florida , newborn sawfish are about 2 feet long . It is believed males reach sexual maturity at 10 - 11 feet and females at 11 - 12 feet . They can grow to a length of 18 feet or more and live up to 25 or 30 years . Despite their fearsome appearance , the sawfish are gentle creatures unless provoked or surprised . Numbers have declined by 95 % Hundreds of specimens of smalltooth sawfish have historically been reported throughout Florida . But because of their slow maturation rate , late reproductive cycle , loss of habitat due to coastal development , and decades of overfishing and gillnet bycatch kill , their population numbers have declined dramatically , perhaps by 95 % or more . The sawfish eventually reached the point where it faced the possibility of extinction . That''s why , in April , 2003 , the U.S . population of the smalltooth sawfish was designated an endangered species by the National Marine Fisheries Service . This designation gives them federal protection under the Endangered Species Act . Today the smalltooth sawfish is found regularly only in the shallow coastal waters , river mouths and sheltered estuarine habitats of south and southwest Florida . Therefore , to further protect the sawfish''s existence , the National Marine Fisheries Service gave designation of critical habitat for the sawfish in September , 2009 , under the Endangered Species Act . One of the two designated areas is The Charlotte Harbor Estuary , which includes all of the Caloosahatchee River up to the Franklin Lock and Dam and extends to the northern edge of Sanibel Island . Government protection of critical habitat under the law is a good thing for our endangered local sawfish . How then can the same federal government , under the aegis of the U.S . Army Corps of Engineers , continue to use a lake release schedule that allows massive , turbid , estuary - killing torrents of polluted lake water to dump into federally protected sawfish habitat ? City Council asks the same question Our City Council has essentially asked the same question . At Vice Mayor Mick Denham''s request , City Attorney Ken Cuyler has contacted a Washington D.C . environmental law firm to evaluate whether designation of our waters as a protected habitat can help us prevent Lake Okeechobee releases that pollute those waters and destroy estuarine habitat . The law firm advised the City as follows : “ … . the designation presents the City with a valuable opportunity to influence the U.S . Army Corps of Engineers '' decision - making process to the benefit of the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary . In particular , it offers the City several options to renew its efforts to protect the Caloosahatchee from the damaging effects of freshwater releases associated with the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule . ” They offered options and plans of action for consideration . The City Council , at their June 1 meeting , agreed to proceed . Sanibel''s problem of dealing with the extreme amounts of polluted water released down the Caloosahatchee from Lake Okeechobee has been going on for far too many years . Let''s hope this new tack finally produces the results we must have . In the meantime , keep the pressure on the Corps with your emails and phone calls to : alfred.a.pantano @ usace.army.mil or 1 - 800 - 291 - 9405 . You are also invited to send your comments and opinions to the Committee of the Islands . Visit our website at coti.org or email us at coti @ coti.org .

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