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As sawfish deaths mounted, wildlife officers and researchers scrambled to respond, records show

A smalltooth sawfish found off South Florida by researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in 2016.
Jamie Mae Darrow
Florida Wildlife Research Institute
A smalltooth sawfish found off South Florida by researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in 2016.

This story has been updated to reflect 27 confirmed dead sawfish as of March 20.

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

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

On social media, pictures from the Southernmost Point 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 the Boynton Inlet, looking eerily similar to images from the Keys.

READ MORE: One of the rarest fish on the planet is dying in the Keys. Scientists are struggling to find out why

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 released to WLRN for the period from Jan. 30 to March 5. By mid February, records show reports began flooding the hotline, sometimes up to six a day. As of March 20, 27 dead sawfish had been confirmed.

Using the records, WLRN compiled an interactive map, below, showing the approximate locations for dead and sick sawfish reported to the state's hotline. Because sawfish are endangered, exact locations were redacted and only the name of the closest key was provided.

“I've lived in the Keys my entire life. I've never seen anything like this,” said Republican state Rep. Jim Mooney, a former teacher, real estate agent and mayor of Islamorada elected to the Florida Legislature four years ago. “There's usually some kind of relatively easy fact behind when they start to get stressed. But this is an anomaly.

Mooney convinced lawmakers this month to set aside $2 million in emergency funding to try to unravel the mystery that’s also stressing, and sometimes killing, dozens of other species of fish.

“You got to ask yourself, is this something to do with last summer's heat that has some kind of offshoot that we haven't seen before?” he said. Sawfish “are basically a dinosaur, so they have survived some very harsh conditions over the course of their life on Earth. And for them to be floundering and dying is super concerning.”

A dead sawfish retrieved by Florida wildlife officers.
Carla Bellenger
Florida wildlife officers retrieved a dead sawfish at the Geiger Key Paddle Hut near the Geiger Key Marina.

The dead sawfish capped a simmering, but mostly out of sight event that started in November, months after an extreme ocean heat wave swept across South Florida and spiked inshore water temperatures by 5 degrees on average. Days of sizzling temperatures bleached coral throughout the Keys and baked other important life: jellyfish also bleached, sponges died and spongy mats of halimeda, a plentiful macro algae, wilted.

Alarmed fishing guides and anglers reported seeing fish behaving strangely. Many circled and seemed to struggle to maintain their equilibrium. Whatever was ailing them appeared to be indiscriminate, afflicting species as small as minnows and pinfish, as well as sturdier snook, tarpon and Goliath grouper. The Lower Keys Guides Association reached out to the Bonefish Tarpon Trust, which organized a team of researchers and state wildlife biologists the second week of January to begin studying the escalating event.

Then in late January, the first sawfish turned up dead, deepening the mystery.

“Given how rare sawfish are, and there are a lot of other big animals out there and they're not turning up on the beaches in the shallows,” said Dean Grubbs, a Florida State University coastal fish ecologist who studies sharks and sawfish and is a member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s sawfish recovery team. “It's mostly the sawfish.”

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.”

They’ll also likely take blood samples. Blood he collected from 11 apparently healthy sawfish in February are being used as comparison, Grubbs said. Older samples from about 100 sawfish tagged and examined over the years will also be provided by biologist Jim Gelsleichter at the University of North Florida, Grubbs said, which contain blood and genetic material used to examine reproduction and eating habits.

“We don't have a lot of other samples available, so they're using whatever is available, which is mostly going to be blood plasma,” he said.

Meanwhile, a separate pathology team is continuing to work to identify the toxin making other species sick.

 A sick sawfish was spotted near Geiger Key in the Florida Keys last month.
Joyce Milelli
Paddle boarder Joyce Milelli came across this sick sawfish in late January while leading a tour near Geiger Key. Five days later it was found dead amid an outbreak of deaths among endangered sawfish.

Fish have tested positive for multiple toxins, including a toxin found in ciguatera that they initially thought might be the cause. But the appearance of other toxins has complicated that theory and so far no smoking gun has emerged, Florida Gulf Coast University algae expert Mike Parsons said Friday. His team has not received samples from the dead sawfish, but he said results of necropsies would not necessarily shed light on toxins identified by pathologists.

State researchers began monitoring them in the 1990s, even before sawfish were added to the endangered species list in 2003, so have the best expertise, Grubbs said. But the number of experts in the field is still small. Only five species of sawfish exist around the globe and the only sawfish in the U.S. are only reliably found in South Florida.

“There are only a limited number of people that are even permitted to work with them,” he said. “Within FWC, there's not very many people that work on sawfish and have never looked inside of a sawfish. So it is a pretty small group. So yeah, they're up to their elbows.”

First findings in January

Since January, when the first dead sawfish was found near a marina on Geiger Key, they’ve been scrambling, records show. The following two weeks, five dead female sawfish turned up dead between Cudjoe Key and Key West.

Numbers jumped the following week, records show. Four more were found dead and another six thrashing or stranded in shallow waters in a widening circle, as far south as the Mule Keys and north to Big Pine and the toney Little Palm Island resort. Seven more were found on Feb. 22 alone.

In late February and early March, numbers and locations mounted: a resident filmed one swimming onto rocks at the White Street pier in Key West. A caller on Boca Chica saw what appeared to be a dead sawfish on rocks, but when they freed its rostrum, the fish swam away. At Bahia Honda, a caller reported a sawfish stranded on the beach. Later, it approached kayakers in deeper water. Dead sawfish were found at faraway Boca Grande and in Shark Channel.

For each report, FWC officers, and staff from the Sawfish Research Program in Charlotte Harbor or the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon scrambled to respond, records show. Sometimes they got help from staff at the old SeaCamp science center in Big Pine or researchers from the Bimini Biological Field Station working in the area.

Dead sawfish were usually taken to the Charlotte Harbor field station to be necropsied. When they could, researchers tagged sawfish that were still alive and pushed them into deeper water. Some bore tags, although none were fish tagged previously be Grubbs.

Other than being mostly large, adult sawfish, Grubbs said no clear patterns are evident. Both male and female are among the dead. And while most were spotted on the Atlantic side, he said that could be a factor of observational bias: the back country has more mangroves where fish can hide and fewer people are watching.

Recent video from the Boynton Inlet is troubling, he said.

“I don't know if that's the same thing happening or not,” he said. “But if it is and it's and it's moving north, that's even more of a concern.”

Anyone who sees unusual fish or sawfish behavior should report it to authorities, Grubbs said. Those reports will help scientists understand how far things have spread, or if they’re continuing.

Sawfish information should be reported to FWC’s Sawfish Hotline at 844-472-9374, 1844-4SAWFISH, or by email to Sawfish@myfwc.com. Other fish should be reported to FWC’s Fish Kill Hotline at 800-636-0511 or online at MyFWC.com/ReportFishKill.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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