Sawfish FAQ

Do you have questions about sawfish? Read the sawfish FAQ for answers.

Is the smalltooth sawfish a protected species?
The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 2003 because its population in the waters surrounding Florida, and the rest of the U.S., has declined severely during the last century. There are two major reasons for this: sawfish were often caught as bycatch in commercial and recreational fisheries, and sawfish have limited reproductive potential, which restricts population recovery. They were easily, and often unintentionally, captured because their saw, or rostrum, would become entangled in fishing nets. Sawfish were landed in recreational fisheries because their saw was a popular trophy item.

Where are smalltooth sawfish found?
Historically, smalltooth sawfish inhabited the western Atlantic Ocean from New York (rarely) to central Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern Atlantic along the central west coast of Africa. Currently, this species is only found in Florida waters, where it is a year-round resident, primarily from Charlotte Harbor to the Florida Keys. Juvenile smalltooth sawfish are year-round residents of shallow coastal waters, especially estuaries. Larger sawfish are found closer to shore in the spring and in deeper waters the rest of the year.

Are sawfish a type of shark?
No. Sawfish swim like sharks but are actually a type of ray, in part because their gill slits are on the bottom of their bodies.

Do smalltooth sawfish swim with other fish?
Yes. There are reports of smalltooth sawfish swimming with other fish, such as cobia.

How big do smalltooth sawfish grow?
Smalltooth sawfish can grow very large, up to 17 feet (5.2 meters) long and 700 pounds (317 kilograms).

How long do smalltooth sawfish live?
The oldest aged wild smalltooth sawfish was 14 years old and measured 14.3 feet (4.35 meters) but they are believed to live longer. Several sawfish have survived in captivity for over 25 years.

Do female sawfish lay eggs?
No. Sawfish reproduce by internal fertilization and females give birth to live young. Smalltooth sawfish embryos grow inside the mother without a placental connection. The length of the smalltooth sawfish gestation period, or pregnancy, is believed to be one year. Female smalltooth sawfish can give birth to 7–14 young measuring 2 to 2.7 feet (0.6–0.8 meters) long.

When sawfish are born, do the saw teeth hurt the mother?
No. The saw teeth of young smalltooth sawfish are covered by tissue to prevent injury to the mother and siblings. The tissue covering the saw teeth completely disappears approximately two weeks after birth.

What do smalltooth sawfish eat?
Smalltooth sawfish feed primarily on fishes. The teeth in their mouth are small and flat like those of stingrays.

What animals eat sawfish?
Sharks are the only known predators of sawfish.

What is the saw used for?
The saw is used to slash through schools of fish, stunning or lacerating them before they are consumed. Sawfish can also use their saw to defend themselves from larger predators like sharks. The smalltooth sawfish has 21 to 30 unpaired teeth on each side of the saw.

Do the saw teeth grow back?
The saw teeth are actually not teeth at all, but modified scales known as dermal denticles. Unlike the teeth in the mouth, a saw tooth that is completely lost is not replaced; however, if a tooth is only chipped and the base is still intact, it will continue to grow as the animal grows.

Do sawfish attack people?
Sawfish are not aggressive toward people; however, the saw can inflict a serious injury and those who catch a sawfish while fishing for other species should use caution when releasing the fish.

Are sawfish culturally important?
Yes. Tribal societies in Central America, West Africa, Australia, and Papua New Guinea consider sawfish supernatural beings that bring energy for renewal and prosperity to their communities. Some tribes believe sawfish control fish populations by enhancing them. Others believe hanging the saw over their doors will keep ghosts out of their houses, and wrapping it in a cloth and hanging it over a cradle will stop babies from crying. The Kuna, native to the Caribbean, believe sawfish protect them when they are out at sea and prevent mariners from drowning. Read more about the Cultural Importance of Sawfish.

What should I do if I catch or see a sawfish?
If a smalltooth sawfish is accidentally caught, it must be promptly released unharmed. Researchers encourage anglers and boaters to share sawfish encounters with the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. Learn more in the article Report Sawfish Sightings for Science.

FWC Facts:
American eels spend 10 to 20 years in fresh or brackish waters only to migrate hundreds of miles to spawn in saltwater in the Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea.

Learn More at AskFWC