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Fort Myers News-Press, November 24, 2008

Southwest Florida chosen for sawfish recovery
By Kevin Lollar

The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed that 221,459 acres of the Charlotte Harbor estuary system be designated as critical habitat for the endangered smalltooth sawfish.

Also up for consideration are 619,013 acres of the Ten Thousand Islands.

"Smalltooth sawfish were once widespread from New York to Brownsville, Texas, and south to Brazil," said George Burgess, a member of the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Team. "Now the population is relegated to Southwest Florida because that's always been the center of reproduction."

Under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies must make sure their actions don't jeopardize listed species or destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. This applies only to federal agencies.

Historically, the greatest threat to smalltooth sawfish, which look like sharks but are really rays, was entanglement in commercial fishing nets.

"The fishermen didn't like them," Burgess said. "Imagine the holes they made in the nets with their saws. Other people would take the saws as curio items. There's not a long-standing bar in Florida without at least one sawfish saw nailed to the wall."

With Florida's gill net ban of 1995 and the listing of smalltooth sawfish as endangered in 2003, the animal's biggest threat now is habitat loss.

"The nice thing about Southwest Florida is that a lot of it is already in parks and management areas," Burgess said. "So the critters are afforded some degree of protection."

A smalltooth sawfish recovery plan has been written to help re-establish the species' population so that it expands beyond Southwest Florida.

"The recovery plan has goals for what the population should look like," said Shelley Norton, a National Marine Fisheries natural resource specialist. "We expect to see it moving along the Gulf coast to Texas and up the east coast of Florida. If we can keep them from being captured and protect their habitat, we feel they'll recover."

No one knows what Southwest Florida's smalltooth population is or what it was in the past.

But researchers do know that recovery will not be quick.

"Because of their slow growth rate and the fact that they're slow to reach sexual maturity, and they have few young - it's life in the slow lane - their numbers declined catastrophically and their recovery is going to be measured not in years like most bony fish or decades like most sharks," Burgess said. "It's going to be centuries. I'll never see it. You'll never see it.

"Therein lies the rub: It's hard to work on something we're not going to finish. But it's important to get the understanding out that this is not just of a week or a year or a decade, but a couple of generations."

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