‘Helping the sawfish survive’: How an NLC ranger group is saving one of the most threatened shark species

Date: Dec 19, 2021

Publication Type: Blog

Subject: Newspaper

THE critically endangered sawfish of the Daly River are being given another chance to survive, thanks to a rescue mission undertaken by the NLC’s Malak Malak ranger group in partnership with Charles Darwin University (CDU) and the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS).

Dr Peter Kyne from Charles Darwin University and Malak Malak Ranger Amos Shields. (ABC News/Che Chorley)

Sawfish pups can easily become trapped in receding waterholes. (ABC News/Che Chorley)

Ten years ago, senior Malak Malak Traditional Owners identified the danger that many sawfish juveniles (called “pups”) were facing each dry season by becoming trapped in receding waterholes on the Daly River floodplain.

The Malak Malak Rangers have since been undertaking annual patrols of their floodplain country as floodwaters recede and waterholes dry up. The sawfish they find trapped in the drying billabongs are carefully moved into the main river channel so they do not run out of water and die in the evaporating pools.

The rescued pups, usually between 1.1m and 1.3m long, are caught by hand and measured before being placed in a tank for transportation to the Daly River. They are then tagged for future monitoring and have tissue samples taken for genetic studies.

AMCS scientist Dr Leonardo Guida, who accompanied the Rangers on a recent rescue operation, said the juvenile sawfish faced multiple threats from fishing, water extraction, and the climate crisis.

“Northern Australia is one of the last strongholds left on the planet for sawfish so we are proud and delighted to be partnering with the Rangers and CDU on these important missions,” said Dr Guida.

“The Top End is a global ‘lifeboat’ for four of the world’s five sawfish – dwarf, green, largetooth and narrow – but even here they still face threats from fishing practices like gillnetting, water extraction from rivers to support industry, and the impacts of global heating.”

According to National Geographic, largetooth sawfish were once present in 75 countries but are now only known to exist in 20. Many of the remaining sawfish habitats lie within Aboriginal Land Trusts.

Senior Malak Malak ranger Aaron Green said 17 pups were successfully rescued this dry season. In total, the Malak Malak rangers have rescued 77 sawfish juveniles from receding waterholes.  

“It is incredibly rewarding knowing that we’re actually helping the sawfish survive, especially because they’re an endangered species,’’ said Mr Green.

“To help out as many as we can each year from dying in a stranded billabong is really good.” 

The animals are measured and tagged before their release into the Daly River. (ABC News/Che Chorley)