Sawfish in Belize: A Relic Of The Past Inspiring Conservation Efforts Today

by Carolee Chanona
sawfish conservation belize caribbean

Picture it: a thatch-roofed restaurant on the coast of Dangriga. You pull the wooden chair out from a roughly-painted table, settle in, and wait to place your order. Your eyes wander, studying the half-empty bottle of Marie Sharp’s habanero pepper sauce on the table, ketchup in an unlabeled condiment container, and the stack of napkins under a hand-carved wooden holder, gently blowing in the wind thanks to salt-tinged sea breeze. Resting your chin on intertwined fingers with—I won’t tell your mother—elbows on the table, your eyes fixate on a peculiar relic on the wall: teeth protrude out the sides of a 4-foot long, wide snout-like bill hung horizontally flat on the wall. It resembles…a saw? Feeling oddly delighted but full of questions, you’re greeted with the same answer across the country wherever this relic is displayed: “Oh, it’s a sawfish bill. This one was caught maybe more than 20 years ago—I haven’t seen another since.” How could two sawfish species once so abundant in Belizean waters disappear so quickly and with such finality?

Encountering Ghosts of Central American Past: Sawfish

pristis pristis sawfish

Pristis Pristis. Image courtesy David Wachenfeld.

But it’s not just Belize. Sawfish populations have dropped 90 to 99 percent over the past few decades, mostly because of coastal development in sawfish habitat and peoples’ willingness to pay top dollar for the animal’s striking toothed snouts. But what exactly are these ghosts of the past? Sawfish are classed within the Ray family, primarily linked to shallow sand and mud flats in estuaries and mangrove habitats where the waters are often turbid. Their rostrums—what we call the ‘saws’—also put sawfish at great risk in fishing nets, including the inherently destructive gill nets. Their teeth easily become entangled, leading them to become bycatch.

Mangroves provide many services, including nursery and feeding grounds for a variety of species, such as this school of snappers sheltering in Tunicate Cove, Belize.
Photo by Tim Laman

An Indiscriminately Destructive Gear: Gillnets

For those unfamiliar, a gillnet is designed to catch fish by allowing only their heads to get through a wall-like mesh, entrapping them by their gills. Regardless of what side of the argument you stand on, everyone accepts that gillnets are very efficient at trapping fish. Too good. As a result, gillnets trap everything, meaning they kill both targeted and undesired species.

gillnet

In 2015, a rarely seen Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) in the waters off Hopkins Village, Belize died after becoming entangled in a gillnet. The incident highlights the need to transition away from this indiscriminate fishing gear. Image via Oceana Belize

Sawfish’s relatively rapid disappearance over the past 30 years has coincided with the increase in human coastal populations and concomitant fisheries—both targeted and as bycatch.

Editor’s Note: On May 21, 2021, the MarAlliance team successfully captured and safely released a critically endangered juvenile male largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) while conducting monitoring of riverine and estuarine fisheries in the Darien region of Panamá. In fact, it’s the first sawfish captured by any research team in Central America in decades.

Outside of the USA and Australia, countries that have protected sawfish either through species-specific measures such as gear bans (Panama, Belize) and species bans (Honduras) have few, if any, recent records of capture due to low or extirpated populations. Complicating management measures further is the isolation of remaining populations—a situation that could contribute to local extinctions, as may have already occurred in Central America.

“Sawfishes have an affinity for the same coastal habitats and river estuaries that humans desire for development,” explains Dr. Nick Dulvy, co-chair of the Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “Encroachment and mega-delta cities, particularly in southeast Asia, combined with the rise of monofilament gill nets, have almost eliminated sawfishes from all but two places in the world: Florida and Northern Australia.” That’s quite a change from a few decades ago, when sawfish could be found in the coastal waters of 80 nations.

Now, it seems all that will remain of these creatures by the end of this century are their rostra, hanging in the bars and restaurants of countries like Belize where they once thrived.

How Tourism Can Be A Tool for Destination Stewardship

The old lighthouse rubble amid sand and coral on the marine protected area of Half Moon Caye. Photo by Kevin Quischan Photography

With Belize’s natural tourism product and authentic cultural experiences, we know that our eco-tourism market is the meaningful trip travelers are looking for. The pace of travel, akin to ‘Belize time’, is slower. Your Belize experience becomes deeper, more distinctive, and more meaningful. In many ways, individuals, organizations, resorts, and even the Government, abide by this eco-ethos. Tourism stakeholders have made conscious efforts to integrate sustainability—long before it was a term—like eco-Lodge at Chaa Creek or the self-sustaining Ray Caye.

In 2009, Belizean advocates successfully lobbied for the protection and catch-and-release of Belize’s three sport-fishing species. Which, in turn, helped secure the numerous benefits of the fly-fishing sector and ecotourism in Belize. Economic studies show that sports fishing generates approximately 100 million dollars—yes, you read that right—annually. And just as importantly, all that income flows through our entire economy via sports fishing licenses, tour guides, restaurants, taxi drivers, gas stations, shopping centers, vegetable stores, resort staff, government taxes, and so on.

gillnets tarpon oceana belize

The destructive nature of gillnets. Photo courtesy Oceana via Twitter

In a landmark decision to protect livelihoods and strengthen marine conservation, the Government of Belize passed the Statutory Instrument 158 of 2020 titled Fisheries Resources (Gill Net Prohibition) Regulations 2020. This legislation bans the possession and use of gillnets in Belize’s marine territorial seas, Exclusive Economic Zone and internal waters. As such, this legislation also rendered all gillnet licenses invalid.

With tourism representing 45% of Belize’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 70% of all tourists visit marine destinations, a healthy marine environment is critical to the country’s economic future. Likewise, Belize’s vibrant commercial fishery is directly dependent on a healthy marine environment. Here, tourism can be used as a tool for conservation, especially in terms of safeguarding sport fishing as a major economic driver for Belize. Indeed, the sport of landing the “big three” generates over $55 million USD annually for the Belizean economy—and now, faces one less threat with the complete ban of gillnets in Belizean waters.

Header image: Christy Davies, one of two local collaborators, retrieves an ageing rostrum from Ms Darcy’s kitchen. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson). Source: Oceana Belize, MarAlliance

Related Articles