Tonya Wiley, Havenworth Coastal Conservation, Researchers Tag Two Endangered Smalltooth Sawfish inside Tampa Bay

The report came in Tuesday evening: someone saw two tiny sawfish inside Tampa Bay. Since reports of endangered sawfish on the Florida Gulf Coast north of Charlotte Harbor are rare, especially those of small ones, it was critical to respond quickly. On Thursday scientists responded to the area around Rattlesnake Key in lower Tampa Bay and successfully caught, tagged, and released both sawfish*. The two sawfish were found in about 6 inches of water, on a sand flat near the mangrove shoreline. Both were male, about two feet long, and about one month old.

Lukas Heath (left) and Tonya Wiley releasing a sawfish tagged inside Tampa Bay on May 11, 2023. Lukas is a Fish Biologist with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute Charlotte Harbor Field Laboratory and Tonya is President of Havenworth Coastal Conservation and Lead Investigator for sawfish research in the greater Tampa Bay Area. All research activities were performed under the authority and guidelines of NMFS ESA permit #21857. Credit Tonya Wiley

Havenworth Coastal Conservation (HCC), based in Palmetto, was awarded a grant by the Disney Conservation Fund (DCF) to study the endangered smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. The DCF funding supports two years of work (2022-2023) with two goals. First, using field research and public outreach and education to collect crucial information about the historical and current population of endangered smalltooth sawfish in the greater Tampa Bay area. Second, in collaboration with Shark Advocates International, using local, state, federal, and international policy initiatives to conserve and promote recovery of sawfish and their habitats in the United States. Previous funding to HCC from the Save Our Seas Foundation allowed for three years (2019-2021) of initial investigation into the use of the Tampa Bay region by endangered sawfish and involved a lot of outreach and education to raise awareness of the species and solicit encounter reports from the public. Those efforts led to multiple reports of sawfish sightings at Redington Beach that resulted in HCC responding to capture, tag, and release two newborn sawfish in April and May 2021.

Just over two feet long and one month old, this smalltooth sawfish was tagged and released inside Tampa Bay on May 11, 2023. All research activities were performed under the authority and guidelines of NMFS ESA permit #21857. Credit Tonya Wiley

“We are very grateful for the support from DCF which allows us to continue to investigate the use of the region by endangered smalltooth sawfish” said Tonya Wiley, President of HCC and lead investigator for sawfish research in the greater Tampa Bay Area. “This funding is critical to our ability to continue our sawfish-related research efforts and expand our public outreach and education initiatives in Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando, and Pasco counties”.

The two sawfish were each implanted with a 4-year acoustic transmitter*. Acoustic receiver listening stations placed in the Tampa Bay area and beyond will record the movements of these tagged sawfish, allowing scientists to study how long they remain in the area and how they use Tampa Bay habitats. HCC’s sawfish receivers are part of an array of receivers in Tampa Bay, Terra Ceia Bay, and Manatee River deployed to track the residency and movements of a variety of shark and ray species in collaboration with Dr. Jayne Gardiner at New College of Florida. The Tampa Bay array is part of a vast collaborative network of these listening stations in the southeastern United States through the iTAG and FACT programs.

A small skin sample collected from the dorsal fin of each sawfish will be processed by sawfish geneticist, Kevin Feldheim at The Field Museum, to determine if the two sawfish are siblings and to provide additional information about their relatedness to other sawfish in the U.S. research database.

To find sawfish pups north of their typical nursery areas (Charlotte Harbor to Everglades National Park) is remarkably interesting and very exciting in terms of potential steps toward population recovery. “Following 20 years of protections under the Endangered Species Act, this is yet another sign that the smalltooth sawfish population may be expanding northward and reestablishing nursery areas in Tampa Bay” said Adam Brame, the NOAA Fisheries U.S. Sawfish Recovery Coordinator.

This story highlights the importance of public outreach and citizen science. If you ever catch or see a sawfish anywhere in the United States, please share the information with the U.S. Sawfish Recovery Team by visiting, calling 1-844-4SAWFISH, emailing, or submitting the information through the FWC Reporter app.  Your encounter report might lead scientists to tag the next endangered smalltooth sawfish in the Tampa Bay area!

*All research activities were performed under the authority and guidelines of NMFS ESA permit #21857.





Tonya Wiley, President


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