At first glance, a sawfish appears otherworldly, lifted from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. One fish, two fish, blue fish, sawfish…there was a fish without a flaw but I was caught off guard by that saw. If one can get past the saw, used to unearth crustaceans from the mud for a tasty treat, one might notice their shark like body. A shark like body that can reach lengths of 23 feet. Indeed, one might even conclude they might be sharks. Whereas sawfishes are elasmobranchs, like sharks and rays, these long-nosed creatures are more closely related to rays and skates than sharks. This affinity with rays is evolutionarily distant and they remain and old and unique lineage.
The earliest sawfishes likely arose in the shallow Tethys Sea, that ocean surrounded by the ancient continents of Godwanda and Laurasia, during the Cretaceous period at least 60 million years ago. They are the sole survivors of an ancient bloodline. Only seven species exist today roaming muddy bottoms of coastal areas like bays and estuaries. All sawfishes can move easily between fresh and saltwater and often venture deep upstream into rivers.
The sawfish lifestyle puts both their size and saw near humans. All seven species are considered critically endangered by the IUCN. As much as we have impacted them, sawfish have also greatly influenced our culture. One of the most destructive German submarines of World War II, U-96, that sunk 27 Allied ships had as a mascot the sawfish. A laughing sawfish. The saw is used by some Asian shamans for exorcisms and other ceremonies to repel demons and disease.
The Aztecs heralded sawfish as an “earth monster”. However, the most intriguing are the ceremonial headdresses of the Ijaw (or Ijo), a group of 15 million indigenous peoples of southern Nigeria. The Ijaw rely heavily upon rivers and oceans for survival and many are fishers. This close connection with water permeates Ijaw religion.
Although up to 90% are now Christian many still observe elaborate traditional rituals. The traditional religion centers on water spirits who can affect everything from the crop and fishing harvests to prosperity of a marriage. Annually, festivals are held to honor the water spirits to ensure a great harvest of fin and flower. Part of these rituals is the wearing of large wooden headdresses.
According to an eyewitness account, in one Ijo community a sawfish headdress, worn by an athletic young male, was brought to the village downriver in a canoe. Having disembarked, the sawfish danced on land, where he was “hunted” by masqueraders representing fishermen.
Carvers take great pride in carving a shark, sawfish, crocodile, or other aquatic predator from single pieces of wood. The headdresses can be large. In the case of the sawfish headdress I witnessed, the length is just over 7 feet.
These stories bring me full turn to idea that I have been struggling with since last year. The oceans obviously are deeply embedded in our various cultures permeating our religions and art. Yet for in this place of reverence comes the destruction of oceans.
Sawfishes are arguably the most threatened family of marine fishes in the world. The global populations of all seven sawfish species have experienced historic declines greater than 90% due to fisheries overexploitation (directed and bycatch) and habitat loss, and are consequently listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered.