Florida State University

Dr. Dean Grubbs Wins Grant to Study Endangered Sawfish

Dean Grubbs holding sawfish

Dr. Dean Grubbs, a scientist at The Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, has won a three-year, $674,989 grant to study the endangered but little-known sawfish, a member of the ray family with shark-like looks and an unlucky affinity for heavily fished tropical waters and ecologically threatened shorelines worldwide.

Marine ecologist Dean Grubbs and his Florida State research team will focus their research on the ecology of the smalltooth sawfish, the only domestic marine fish currently listed in the U.S. Endangered Species Act but, until now, rarely investigated. From the limited data available on both its geographic distribution and population, some scientists believe its numbers may have declined more than 90 percent both at home and abroad.

"Worldwide, there are seven extant species of sawfishes and all are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species." Grubbs said. "Populations have declined due to overfishing and habitat loss.

"Sawfishes are coastal fishes that are highly susceptible to varied fishing gears," he said. "In addition, they depend on habitats such as mangrove-fringed shorelines that are highly sensitive to degradation from pollution and development. The current recovery plan for this species is hindered by the general lack of information on their life history and ecology. Even basic information concerning seasonal residency, migration patterns and habitat affinities are largely unknown. These are the gaps that we hope to fill."

Lisa inspecting sawfish

In the United States, the once-extensive sawfish range is now restricted primarily to southwest Florida and the Florida Keys, where Grubbs will use sophisticated satellite transmitters in collaboration with UF scientists to study the movements and migration of the adult fish. In Everglades National Park, he and Florida State biology graduate student Lisa Hollensead will work with colleagues from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Panama City Laboratory to delineate critical habitats for juvenile sawfish by employing both passive and active acoustic telemetry -- transmitters attached to the fish and listening stations to track them

The nearly $700,000 grant to Grubbs is part of a $2.4 million award from NOAA's Protected Species Cooperative Conservation Grants Program to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, whose co-investigators on the sawfish project include the University of Florida and the Texas Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as Florida State.

In addition, Grubbs has won a nearly $15,000 grant from the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council that he will use to lead a voyage to a remote region of the Bahamas in search of smalltooth sawfish.

"Critical to the recovery likelihood for this species is the amount of exchange or degree of isolation between U.S. and adjacent population segments." Grubbs said. "My colleagues and I will seek to use telemetry and genetics to investigate the degree of connectivity between sawfish in Florida and the Bahamas."

Learn more about Smalltooth Sawfish