Unmistakably unique, smalltooth sawfish resemble sharks in appearance but are actually large, bottom-dwelling rays. Their name makes reference to their long, saw-like bill, chock full of razor-sharp teeth — which has been a mixed blessing for the species. The smalltooth sawfish can use its jagged snout to great advantage to sense and capture prey. Yet its bill makes it especially prone to capture by fishermen’s nets, and throughout the twentieth century, people killed the sawfish as a curiosity — a novelty to be stuffed and mounted on a wall.

Fishing still poses a threat to the smalltooth sawfish. Gillnets entangle the fish, and fishermen sometimes kill sawfish simply to keep their nets from tearing. Once numerous in all U.S. tropical waters from the Carolinas to Texas, the species has now been reduced to an estimated 5 percent of its former range and population — now occurring in only a few spots in Florida.

Although the smalltooth sawfish gained endangered species protection in 2003, coastal development continued unabated in sawfish habitat — including within sensitive mangrove forests that serve as nurseries for young sawfish. In 2007, the Center settled a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, forcing the agency to meet a past-due deadline to designate critical habitat. Finally, in September 2009, the Fisheries Service finalized a designation of 840,472 acres of critical habitat for the smalltooth sawfish.