Once abundant sawfish near extinction

WWF-Pakistan, experts call for conservation, highlight threats, risks


Our Correspondent October 20, 2020
Sawfish have been declared endangered species, especially in Pakistan where their presence is now non-existent thanks to over-fishing and habitat degradation. PHOTO: COURTESY WWF-P

It is likely that sawfish have become locally extinct in our sea waters, with no specimen of this endangered species reported by fishermen in the area in the last two years, stated experts during a webinar on Monday.

The webinar was held in observance of International Sawfish Day, which is marked on October 17 annually.

Explaining that due to multiple threats to the sawfish species, they are already on the brink of extinction, experts urged for joint efforts to be taken to conserve these magnificent marine animals.

This day is celebrated to raise awareness about these critically endangered elasmobranchs and highlight the threats they face. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, some species of sawfish are classified as critically endangered, while others are listed as endangered. These species are also included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix-I and are protected under Sindh and Balochistan fisheries laws since 2016.

Three species of sawfish, including knife-tooth, large-tooth and large-comb sawfish, were reported in the past from Pakistan.

Once abundantly found in Pakistani waters, sawfish species have now become extinct locally. Therefore, the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan) has urged taking necessary steps for the conservation of these marine animals.

Sawfish, which are related to sharks, have a unique long, narrow, flattened rostrum, or nose extension, lined with sharp transverse teeth, arranged in a way that resembles a saw.

There have been at least five records of large-tooth sawfish from Pakistan in the last decade.

In May 2018, a 15-foot-long female large-tooth sawfish was caught by a fisherman near Khajar Creek. Another specimen was caught from the same area in June 2013. Similarly, two specimens were caught in September 2009 and January 2016 from Sur Bunder, near Gwadar, Balochistan.

Andy Cornish, leader of 'Sharks: Restoring the Balance' - WWF and TRAFFIC's joint shark and ray conservation programme - said the main threats to sawfish include habitat degradation, pollution, commercial, recreational and unregulated fishing.

He lamented that large-tooth sawfish have disappeared from most of Africa and Asia, including Pakistan, with a few spots of last hope remaining in South America, Australia and South Asia.

"Environmental DNA studies of sawfish can help conserve these magnificent animals and develop their management plans," he added.

Muhammad Moazzam Khan of WWF-Pakistan said there was once a considerably large sawfish fishery in Pakistan, mainly found in Miani Hor (Sonmiani), Kalmat Khor, Jiwani, Gwadar and along the entire Indus Delta, particularly Khajar Creek.

Besides fishing, habitat degradation is also an important factor that has resulted in the possible local extinction of sawfish, as local power plants and other industries are continuously being built in locations, where sawfish were previously found, such as Gwadar, said experts, adding that a national or regional conservation action plan for the protection of habitat, minimisation of bycatch, and ending illegal fin and rostrum trading must be developed.

Since 2016, the provincial governments of Sindh and Balochistan have already included sawfish in the list of species that cannot be fished, landed or marketed.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 20th, 2020.

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