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What Does Recovery Mean for Endangered Smalltooth Sawfish?

Following the population decline of smalltooth sawfish in the United States and the 2003 listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a team was assembled to recover the population of this endangered species.  But what is recovery and how do we achieve it for smalltooth sawfish?

Under the ESA, recovery is defined as the process of restoring endangered and threatened species to the point where they no longer require the safeguards of the Act.  To guide managers and researchers in that recovery process, the ESA directs NOAA Fisheries (or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the case of terrestrial animals) to develop recovery plans.  Recovery plans outline the paths and tasks required to restore and secure self-sustaining wild populations. They are guidance documents that describe, justify, and schedule the research and management actions necessary to support recovery of a species.

A recovery plan for smalltooth sawfish in the U.S. was published in 2009 and outlines specific criteria for downlisting (a reclassification from endangered to threatened) and delisting (a reclassification from threatened to recovered).  Sawfish may be delisted on the basis of recovery only if the best available scientific and commercial data indicate an improvement in the status of the species to the point where it is no longer appropriate to be considered endangered.  For smalltooth sawfish that means ensuring the long-term viability of the species through substantial increases in both abundance and range.

Smalltooth sawfish in the U.S. are considered to be, and managed as, one single population.  This means that under ESA regulations, all sawfish receive equal and consistent protections regardless of where they are geographically.  Sawfish in Everglades National Park are just as protected and equally important to the population as those in Tampa Bay, Indian River Lagoon, Texas, or Georgia.  Since the species is managed as a single population, not individual geographic populations, only the species as a whole can be considered recovered.  In other words, smalltooth sawfish cannot be locally or regionally recovered such as in one particular bay system.

While we are starting to see some encouraging signs in the population, we are certainly a long way from recovery.  Modest increases in sawfish numbers are likely the result of the 1992 protection from harvest in Florida waters, the 1995 Florida gillnet ban, and the 2003 ESA listing which have all aided in reducing mortality, and a substantial increase in important outreach and education efforts over the last two decades.  However, until recovery is truly documented, it is critical that local, state, and federal regulations and protections remain in place in all areas of the U.S. to ensure the continued improvement in the smalltooth sawfish population.

You can also help scientists track recovery of the population and steer research efforts by sharing information about your sawfish catches and sightings by visiting, calling 1-844-4SAWFISH, emailing, or entering the details in the FWC Reporter App.  For more information on protected species recovery visit

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