By Nicholas Dulvy

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.

The idea of a sawfish - the folklore, mythology and imagery - is almost all that is left to remind us of how widespread and abundant they were. Sawfishes still feature on the postage stamps of Thailand and the notes and coins of eight West African countries and in the art of coastal peoples throughout the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific Oceans. But the chance of seeing a sawfish in either region, or anywhere else other than Florida or Northern Australia, is vanishingly small. This doesn’t mean they are not there, they are now captured so infrequently that any capture is newsworthy.

There are seven sawfish species currently recognized and all are categorized by the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered worldwide. International trade is theoretically unlikely, six of the seven are listed on CITES Appendix I and the seventh, the largetooth sawfish (Pristis microdon) found in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, is listed on Appendix II. Sawfishes were formerly found throughout the shallow coastal waters, estuaries and mangrove forests of the tropics and subtropics and are rarely found deeper than 100 m. Some species enter freshwater and penetrate throughout the Amazon basin and there are records from the heart of Africa - there is a sawfish rostrum collected from the Central African Republic over a century ago archived in the British Natural History Museum.

Historically, sawfishes were subject to target fisheries in some areas of the world, but more recently they are now threatened by incidental entanglement in the nets of artisanal and commercial fishers. One of the earliest documented target fisheries was in the Florida Keys in the 1920s, where sawfishes were targeted for their meat and their fins which fetched the highest prices in Asian markets. The most famous fishery was the targeted hunt for sawfishes living in Lake Nicaragua in the 1970s. This fishery was mainly for meat, and their flesh was advertised as ‘sierra’ steaks in supermarket newspapers and wassold as far away as Central America, the Caribbean Island and the United States for $1.59 per pound, (equivalent to around $9 per pound today). Within five years somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 sawfishes had been slaughtered causing a precipitous decline in their abundance which is documented by the seminal papers of Thomas B. Thorson.

The Lake Nicaragua sawfishes are now almost extinct, but little detail is known of their present status. With the exception of a few hotspots, sightings or catches of sawfishes are rare. While we know little detail, there are still substantial landings of sawfishes from coastal Iran and occasional catches in Pakistan and the Persian Arabian Gulf region. The recent entanglement and capture of a 6 metre-long sawfish in India was a sufficiently significant event that it made the local newspaper and photographs were circulated worldwide through email.

Sawfishes, along with other shark-like rays – the wedgefishes and guitarfishes, have some of the most highly prized fins. They are traded to China where they are desired for shark-fin soup, which is served at weddings as a show of wealth and sharing.  Sawfish fins are some of the most valuable, worth thousands per set at final point of sale and their decline and paucity in the fin trade has led connoisseurs to nostalgically mourn their passing. However, 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. Notwithstanding their high potential value, artisanal fishermen lament their capture because of the damage they do to nets.

The key challenge is how to minimize the capture of these lucrative, demographically-sensitive, and easy-to-entangle sawfishes in the coastal waters of some of the world’s least developed countries. Such problems have been called ‘wicked problems’ - not because they are evil, but instead because they are difficult and challenging to solve. The global biodiversity crisis is a series of local wicked problems. And like lady justice and the judicial sawfish, we are often faced with local livelihoods on one side of the scales and biodiversity on the other.

We don’t yet have the solutions, but we will find them soon. 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.

Nicholas Dulvy is Co-chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (www.iucnssg.org), based in the Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Vancouver, Canada V5A 1S6. Contact him at dulvy@sfu.ca and follow him on twitter (@NickDulvy).

Note: This meeting referred to in this article was held between 20-24 May.

Photo: The shark lab at Bimini field station (The Bahamas) caught, tagged and released a large female smalltooth sawfish on 5th May 2012. Credit: Emily Marcus.