Sawfish species are endangered or extinct in many places worldwide. Although still surviving in Northern Australia, low population numbers concern conservation managers. As data on sawfish populations in Australian waters are negligible, it is impossible to know how critical the situation is, or how to protect them.
It is thought that many are accidentally caught as ‘bycatch’ by trawl and gillnet fishers and some die as a result. How many, and the percentage that survive after release is unknown. This project aimed to find ways to: reduce sawfish bycatch; improve reporting; and initiate processes to enable assessment of the status of sawfish populations.
Industry engagement is critical for these goals, as the industry is best placed to provide the quantity and type of data that scientists need to understand population numbers and changes over time.
Approach and findings
This project convened a consultative workshop with a diverse range of stakeholders including fishers, researchers, marine managers, and regional planners.
We asked participants which issues should be prioritised for research to support sawfish recovery and sustainability, whilst also testing industry support for a Close-Kin Mark-Recapture (CKMR) tissue sampling project proposed by CSIRO. CKMR is the most valuable method of understanding sawfish abundance and genetic relationships throughout their range.
The workshop identified the following reasons for low rates of sawfish reporting by fishers:
- a minimal or absent understanding of the importance of reporting and requirements;
- lack of trust in the process and fear the data might be used against the industry;
- an overly complex logbook format and reporting system; and
- time pressures inherent in assessing and releasing sawfishes, alongside main-catch processing.
Participants’ priorities for research were:
- the proposed CKMR study of abundance and genetic relationships;
- post-release survival rates;
- logbook and reporting simplification;
- communications and fisher training to increase engagement and support research;
- factors that establish trust between commercial fishers, researchers, and managers; and
- potential methods for reducing sawfish bycatch (e.g., green LED lights on nets, net flaps).
Key to a confident uptake of bycatch reporting by fishers, and therefore the generation of robust population data sets, are good relationships and trust in conservation managers and researchers. Our workshop of around 50 people from 24 organisations, half representatives of the fishing industry, was a significant step in developing these, and also mapped a clear path forward for relationships and interlinked research, deliverable over 5 years.
Promisingly, participants indicated widespread support for the proposed CKMR tissue sampling that if well-supported, and universally adopted by fishers will deliver sufficient data over 2–3 years to enable an assessment of sawfish status that has so far been impossible.
Collaborative research and management, co-designed and implemented by Traditional Owner groups whose Countries feature crucial sawfish populations, will be critical to all future conservation efforts.
- Researchers and fishers supported to undertake collection of sawfish conservation data.
- Collaborative identification of a pathway for data collection improvement.
- Indigenous communities’ species conservation goals supported.
Marine research community
Technical report – Project 1.25
Sawfish bycatch mitigation workshop for northern Australian fisheries
Pillans R, Patterson T, and Donovan A (2022). Sawfish bycatch mitigation workshop for northern Australian fisheries. Report to the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre. Cairns, Queensland.
Fact sheet – Project 1.25
Project 1.25 Information sheet
NESP Marine and Coastal Hub (2021). Sawfish bycatch mitigation workshop for northern Australia fisheries. Project 1.25 Information sheet. Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Cairns, Queensland.