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Rescued smalltooth sawfish passes away

by Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium 3 May 23:49 UTC
Rescued smalltooth sawfish passes away © Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

The Mote Marine Laboratory family is heartbroken to report the sad news that the distressed smalltooth sawfish that was rescued on April 5 passed away on May 2.

The sawfish was originally rescued on Friday, April 5, 2024, when Mote Marine Laboratory (Mote) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) responded to a call reporting the animal swimming in circles in Cudjoe Bay in the Florida Keys. Immediately after rescue, it was transported to an interim holding tank at Mote's Lower Keys facility which gave the team a temporary area where they were able to stabilize the animal. On April 11, after several days of treatment and monitoring, a team of sawfish experts and veterinarians determined that the animal appeared capable of withstanding the several-hour drive to another Mote quarantine facility in Sarasota designed to provide more extensive rehabilitation treatment for sawfish. More information on the initial rescue, transportation by Ripley's Aquariums, and rehabilitation of the animal can be found here.

The animal was treated at Mote's extensive quarantine and rehabilitation facility from April 11 - May 2. The team worked tirelessly to improve the animal's condition in hopes it could eventually be released back into its natural environment. Under guidance by NOAA and FWC, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the sawfish when the animal's condition deteriorated.

"It was always our cautious hope to be able to utilize the best available science for the rehabilitation and release of the sawfish," said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, President & CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. "Although heartbreaking, this outcome was not surprising. Mote's several decades of active rescue and rehabilitation efforts have taught us that these efforts aren't always successful in fully rehabilitating compromised stranded animals. Mote has extensive experience treating sick and injured marine wildlife, and we worked restlessly for 24 hours a day to provide the most advanced treatment available. Sadly, even with our best efforts, the animal was ultimately too compromised to recover."

An effort of this kind has never been attempted before in the United States, and the logistics are complex.

"The Mote, NOAA, FWC, and Ripley's staff exhibited tremendous dedication, compassion, partnership, and skill in providing vital care to this animal in need, and are to be commended for their efforts," said Dr. Crosby. "Mote remains committed to providing FWC and NOAA with significant ongoing assistance and support of our expert veterinary and animal husbandry staff and scientists across diverse disciplines, along with our significant specialized marine species quarantine facilities for the rescue and rehabilitation of distressed smalltooth sawfish. This is an unprecedented partnership initiative that is at the core of our mission - using the best available science and technology to rescue, restore, and conserve our precious marine species, habitats, and ecosystems."

The animal's cause of distress remains unknown at this time. FWC will perform a necropsy, an animal "autopsy," to try to learn more. Samples will be collected and sent to various labs for further analysis. Necropsies do not always determine a cause of death, and it could take weeks to months to get a full picture of the animal's condition.

The team will continue to respond to distressed sawfish reports and attempt additional rescue efforts when warranted and as requested by FWC and NOAA. Each opportunity to respond to distressed sawfish reports provides the entire partnership team a chance to learn as much as possible about these critically distressed sawfish and understand more about applying novel best practices approaches to safely capture and rehabilitate these animals with the next rescue attempt.

How can the public assist?

  • Report all sawfish observations (healthy, sick, injured, or dead) to (844) 4-SAWFISH (844-472-9347) or
  • Report abnormal fish behavior and fish kills to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish Kill Hotline at (800) 636-0511
How can the public help support the Sawfish Rescue Initiative?

History of "Spinning" fish in South Florida

Over the past few months, sightings of "spinning" fish across multiple species have been reported in the Florida Keys. Along with this abnormal behavior, there have also been reports of fish deaths, including 38 smalltooth sawfish to date. There have also been reports of small-scale fish kills in this area.

Scientists do not yet know what is causing the erratic behavior. NOAA has initiated an emergency response effort with FWC, Mote Marine Laboratory, and other partners including Havenworth Coastal Conservation, Dynasty Marine Associates, Inc., and Ripley's Aquariums, to possibly rescue, rehabilitate, and release smalltooth sawfish impacted by this event. Investigations into the abnormal behavior and mortalities by FWC are ongoing.

Mote played an instrumental role over twenty years ago in providing some of the foundational research that led, in part, to the listing of smalltooth sawfish as the first marine fish placed on the Endangered Species List and designation of Critical Habitat. Now, Mote is acting under the guidance of NOAA and FWC in this partnership mission.

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