Water-Related News

As sawfish deaths mount, researchers scramble to respond, records show

Overwhelmed experts are baffled over a trail of sick or dead sawfish that has stretched across 78 miles of shallow water in the Keys. The mystery is also stressing dozens of other fish species.

As dead sawfish began washing onshore in the Lower Keys this winter, state researchers and wildlife officers raced to respond to the mounting number of endangered fish thrashing on beaches, circling flats and uncharacteristically jerking their toothy rostrums out of the water.

One was spotted near Marathon in a channel once used for a James Bond movie scene. The same day another appeared miles away, south of the Key West airport, then even farther away, in the remote Mule Keys.

On social media, pictures from the Southernmost Point in Key West competed with videos of smalltooth sawfish pitching onto beaches and swimming into seawalls near the popular tourist town.

Then late last week, videos posted on YouTube looked showed a large sawfish swinging its rostrum out of the water in Boynton Inlet, looking eerily similar to images from the Keys.

Altogether, the trail of sick or dead sawfish in the Keys stretched across 78 miles of shallow water, from Boca Grande to Long Key State Park, according to records from Jan. 30 to March 5 released to WLRN. By mid-February, records show, reports began flooding a state hotline, sometimes up to six a day.

Nearly all the dead sawfish have had necropsies performed by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s sawfish research program based at its Charlotte Harbor field laboratory. Lead scientist Gregg Poulakis, who has referred questions to FWC media staff, has been investigating the fish for more than a decade.

“They're going to open them up and start looking into their internal organs,” Grubbs said. “You might look at their digestive tract. You might look at the liver, gallbladder and kidneys. Do they look normal? Maybe you'll take bile from the gallbladder. Those are your filtration organs so those are the ones that are going to filter any toxins.”