On November 1, 2019, Chad Ponce of Jacksonville, Florida pleaded guilty to killing a smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), an endangered species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Florida Endangered and Threatened Species Act . Sawfishes are a family of rays characterized by a long, narrow, flattened rostrum, or nose extension, lined with sharp teeth, arranged in a way that resembles a saw. Sawfish use that rostrum to sense and attack prey; without it, they can’t survive. They are among the largest fish, with some species reaching lengths of up to 17-18 feet.
There are five sawfish species worldwide, and all are considered endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Sawfish were once abundant worldwide, throughout tropical and subtropical regions in coastal marine and estuarial waters, as well as freshwater rivers and lakes. The smalltooth sawfish historically migrated along the east coast as far north as North Carolina; today, however, the smalltooth sawfish is found only in the southeastern United States, in waters off of southwestern Florida.
The smalltooth sawfish has been protected under Florida law since 1992. Two distinct population segments of smalltooth sawfish were listed as endangered under the federal ESA in 2003 and 2015. The National Marine Fisheries Service designated critical habitat for the smalltooth sawfish in 2009. Since 2007, they have been protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits any commercial trade in listed species. Fishermen sometimes catch sawfish accidentally while fishing for other species, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has developed guidelines for how to safely handle and release sawfish unharmed when they caught in this manner as part of the smalltooth sawfish Recovery Plan.
A witness reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that on July 18, 2018, they saw Ponce aboard his fishing vessel using a power saw to remove the rostrum from a 12-foot sawfish. Under the federal ESA’s criminal enforcement provisions, Ponce could face up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $50,000. The case was investigated by NOAA and the Florida Wildlife Commission, and prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.