Ruth Leeney, who is the director of the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project and received a grant from the Marine Conservation Action Fund in 2014 to collect baseline information on sawfishes in Mozambique, writes this post.
Sawfishes are some of the most endangered of all sharks and rays. The five species of sawfish are all listed as either Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A recent conservation strategy released by the IUCN highlighted the urgent need for baseline data on sawfishes throughout much of their range—simply put, we know very little about the historical and current distributions of sawfishes. Yet without such information, we cannot implement conservation and management strategies for these unique fishes.
|Largetooth sawfish, Pristis pristis (photographed in the Fitzroy River, Western Australia).|
This is particularly a problem for much of the African continent. Sawfishes formerly inhabited both the west and east coasts of the African continent, but are now thought to be extinct throughout much of this range. However, in many African countries we do not even know whether sawfish are still encountered and if so, what local threats they face. Research efforts are limited by a lack of resources or expertise, and many African nations must understandably prioritise human health, welfare and education over environmental concerns. Nonetheless, as other nations race to exploit Africa’s natural resources—particularly timber, minerals and fish stocks—the impacts of coastal development, habitat loss or degradation and increased fishing effort all pose threats to sawfish populations. Given this huge gap in our knowledge, the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project has prioritized collecting baseline information on the historical and current presence of sawfishes throughout Africa. So far, the project has worked with local partners in five African countries: Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and, most recently, in Mozambique.
I was perhaps overly ambitious in my aims to travel the length of the coastline and to collect information from fishing communities in each of Mozambique’s six coastal provinces. Mozambique has a coastline of 2,470 kilometers—that’s about three times as long as the coast of California. Much of the northern coast is accessible only with four-wheel-drive vehicles and involves hours of bumping along corrugated, winding tracks. However, thanks to the collaborative spirit of the regional offices of the Institute for Fisheries Research (Instituto Nacional de Investigacao Pesceira – IIP), I was accompanied in each province by local fisheries officers who knew the busiest fish landings sites, acted as translators and could advise on and sometimes even arrange transport and accommodation. I was grateful for their enthusiasm for the project, which would not have been a success without their involvement, and I am already looking forward to working with the various local teams again.
|Martinho Padeira, from IIP’s office in Sofala province, interviews a fisherman in Beira’s artisanal fishing harbor.|
In Zambezi province, I was lucky to be able to coordinate my work with some monitoring activities being conducted by the regional IIP team and visited some hard-to-reach places along the coast. In villages such as Maquaquane and Therrebuane, we conducted interviews in the shade of cashew, mango and banana trees, under the gaze of children unaccustomed to visitors. On long, white-sand beaches, we waited while the fishermen hauled in their beach seine nets and separated the catch by hand. Nowhere has it been more apparent to me how closely the well-being of entire communities is linked to the fish they catch, which not only provides the primary source of protein for every inhabitant, but also comprises one of the only sources of income in these close-knit, isolated villages.
|Fishermen sorting the catch from their beach seine, Zambezi province.|
|Group interview with the fishermen’s cooperative in the village of Sakone, Zambezi province.|
In total, we conducted 206 interviews, covering all coastal provinces of Mozambique. Three-quarters of interviewees recognized the image of a sawfish and had seen a sawfish at least once in their lifetime. The proportion of recent (2010-2014) sawfish catches was considerably higher (26 percent of all interviewees) than has been reported by other studies of this type elsewhere in Africa, which suggests that sawfishes are still present in Mozambican waters—great news for sawfish conservation in Africa and worldwide. Sawfishes are captured by artisanal fishers using various types of gears including deep nets for sharks, beach seines and hand lines. A considerable number of fishermen working on shrimp trawlers had also observed sawfish which had been brought in as bycatch (accidentally captured) during trawling activities. During our interviews in June 2014, we learned of numerous recent catches, particularly from two areas. These areas will be the focus of future work to verify the presence of sawfishes in Mozambique, confirm the species present, identify localized threats and highlight specific sawfish habitats in need of protection.
In each region where we conducted interviews, we asked about the names for sawfish in the languages of that region. Most Mozambicans speak one or more tribal languages as well as Portuguese, and many fishermen will know the species they encounter only by their local names. Alternative names for sawfish include cachão (in Zambezia province), piilu or mbiru (northern provinces), papopanga or papa-panga (in Cabo Delgado province; ‘papa’ means shark in the KiSwahili language but is also used as a term of respect for older men, whilst ‘panga’ means knife) and salpanga or sarrapanga (southern provinces). These names can be used in future awareness and education campaigns with coastal communities and when encouraging fishermen to report their sawfish catches to their local fisheries officer. We also asked whether fishermen owned any sawfish rostra—the long, tooth-studded saw so characteristic of sawfishes—or knew where we might find them for sale. We found a total of 13 sawfish rostra from two sawfish species, the majority from largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) but several from green sawfish (P. zijsron). Both of these species were also formerly documented along South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coastline, but are now considered to be extinct in that region.
|Sawfish rostra from sawfish captured by artisanal fishermen.|
In addition to collecting up-to-date information on sawfishes in Mozambique, this project raised awareness within the IIP and among local NGOs of the critical status of sawfishes and of the need to report all sawfish catches. I trained several IIP staff members in sawfish identification and provided sawfish kits, which included a Sawfish Conservation Society species identification guide, data recording forms, a tape measure and a pencil, to IIP staff in every coastal province. Having collected valuable information on the regions where sawfishes are most likely to be found, the next important step for this project will be to sample, using nets and hand lines, in these key areas in an attempt to document the presence of live sawfishes and to confirm the species and age classes present. Funding is being sought to provide fisheries observers with digital cameras, so that they can record sawfishes and other species of conservation concern (such as other shark and ray species, turtles and dolphins) which are inadvertently captured in trawl fisheries. In addition to this research, I am planning a workshop in 2015 with representatives from IIP, the Department of Fisheries, Eduardo Mondlane University, local NGOs and other marine stakeholders, to develop a national conservation strategy for sawfishes. 2015 will be an exciting year for sawfish research in Mozambique!
This study was made possible by grants from the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund, the Swiss Shark Foundation and the Rufford Foundation, and was supported by the Marine Megafauna Foundation. Many thanks to Paula Santana Afonso (IIP), Ernesto Poiosse (IDPPE), Prof. Guissamulo Almeida, Karen Allen (EWT), Peter Bechtel, Simon Chitsenga (WWF-CARE), Alice Costa, Nick Dulvy (IUCN SSG), Robert and Niamh Leeney, Andrea Marshall, Simon Pierce and the MMF team, Prof. Anildo Naftal, Simon Wearne, Jeff Whitty (SCS) and all the IIP and WWF-CARE staff who assisted with interviews.
Learn how to identify the different sawfish species, and download an identification guide to sawfishes in your region, on the Sawfish Conservation Society’s website. www.sawfishconservationsociety.org
Updates on the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project can be found on Facebook. www.facebook.com/ProtectAfricasSawfishes