Off the Florida Keys, 'Emergency Response' Over Spinning Fish

NOAA has implemented an 'emergency response' to strange behaviors of dying smalltooth sawfish
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 29, 2024 12:04 PM CDT
Off the Florida Keys, 'Emergency Response' Over Spinning Fish
This image shows a smalltooth sawfish.   (NOAA via AP)

Endangered smalltooth sawfish, marine creatures virtually unchanged for millions of years, are exhibiting erratic spinning behavior and dying in unusual numbers in Florida waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced what it calls an "emergency response" focused on the Florida Keys starting next week. A NOAA news release called the effort unprecedented. "If the opportunity presents itself, this would be the first attempt ever to rescue and rehabilitate smalltooth sawfish from the wild," said Adam Brame, NOAA Fisheries' sawfish recovery coordinator, per the AP. Sawfish, related to rays, skates, and sharks, are named for their elongated, flat snout that contains a row of teeth on each side. They can live for decades and grow quite large, some as long as 16 feet.

They were once found all along the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic coasts in the US, but now they're mainly in southwestern Florida and the Keys island chain as their habitats shrink. A related species is found off Australia. Since late January, state wildlife officials have been documenting what they call an "unusual mortality event" that has affected about 109 sawfish and killed at least 28 of them. There've been reports of abnormal behavior, such as the fish seen spinning or whirling in the water. Other species of fish also appear to have been affected. "We suspect that total mortalities are greater, since sawfish are negatively buoyant and thus unlikely to float after death," Brame said.

Officials haven't isolated a cause. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported Wednesday that sawfish necropsies haven't revealed any pathogen or bacterial infections, nor problems with low water oxygen levels or contaminants, or toxic red tide. Water testing is continuing. It's also not clear if the deaths and odd behaviors are related to a lengthy summer heat wave in Florida waters that experts say was driven by climate change. The superheated waters caused other marine damage, such as coral bleaching and deaths of other ocean species. Brame said the effort depends on tips and sightings from the public of dead or distressed sawfish so rescuers know where to look for them. NOAA has a tip line at 844-4-SAWFISH, and FWC has an email, More here.

(More endangered species stories.)

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