On Friday, fishermen near the Pakistan-Iran Taftan border came across something that both shocked and amazed them. Trapped in a bottom-set gillnet, a fishing net that catches fish from the bed of the sea, was a longcomb sawfish – a species almost extinct in Pakistan.
“The sawfish has been seen in the area after almost 30 years,” said Ghulam Nabi a fisherman in Balochistan’s Jiwani.
There was a time when these fish dominated the shark species, but with to the introduction of motorized fishing vessels and nylon nets, their population decreased rapidly. Today, sawfish are almost extinct.
The sawfish is regarded as a distinct and unique species because of its long, narrow, and flattened rostrum. Its nose extension is lined with sharp teeth which resemble a saw, thus the name sawfish.
According to research by WWF-Pakistan, in the last 10 years, there have been only four sightings of sawfish. In September 2009, a 1.4-meter-long Pristis, also called a narrow-tooth sawfish, landed near the Gwadar fishing harbor.
Four years later, in June 2013, fishermen near the Khajr Creek caught a huge sawfish near the mouth of the River Indus. The third sighting of sawfish was reported in Karachi in 2015.
The most recent record in Pakistan was reported in 2016. The animal was entangled in a fishing net near Balochistan’s Surbandar.
Overfishing, illegal fishing practices
Fishermen and experts recall that a sawfish fishery was thriving in Pakistan back in 1970. Within 10 years, however, its population collapsed because of illegal fishing practices, primarily fishing gear.
The animals were found near Sonmiani, Kalmat, Khor, Jiwani, Gwadar, Ibrahim Hyderi, and along the Indus Delta.
Sawfish have a long life, slow growth, late maturity, and low fecundity. All these factors make it extremely vulnerable to any changes that may reduce their populations.
The fish’s rostrums, which make the animal unique, expose it to several dangers. These saws get entangled in nets and other fishing gear making them vulnerable targets of overfishing.
Once caught sawfish meat, dried and salted, was exported to Sri Lanka along with other sharks, Moazzam Khan, WWF’s technical director for marine fisheries, revealed. Its fins were sent to Hong Kong – the world’s largest shark fin importers.
Across the world, shark finning is considered illegal and a crime. The fins are often removed from the animals while still alive. The wounded sharks are then thrown back into the sea. Without fins, the animals are unable to swim, thus they sink and die of blood loss or are eaten by other predators.
Because of the decline in sawfish population worldwide, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed all sawfish species as ‘Critically Endangered’. Sawfish are also included in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species which prohibits any commercial trade of the species. Both the Sindh and Balochistan governments have enacted laws banning the catching, marking, and sale of sawfish in the provinces.