This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists, and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.

MCAF funded a project led by Priyankar Chakraborty, a MSc student from Bharati Vidyapeeth Institute of Environmental Education and Research (BVIEER), Pune, India and MCAF Fellow Dr. Ruth Leeney on baseline assessment of sawfishes in west Bengal, India. In this piece, Priyankar writes about recent reports of Sawfish siting’s in the Sundarbans region, the impacts of COVID-19 on their project and the remarkable findings from fishers in a recent cyclone event. To read Priyankar’s previous blog on the Sawfishes of the Sundarbans click here. Note: this blog has been backdated for archival purposes.

Bengali version

Sawfish observations on the rise

Are sawfishes faring better in the Indian Sundarbans as a response to COVID-19 lockdown?

By Priyankar Chakraborty; Translation assistance by Satyabrata Ghosh

Three phone calls across the span of two months made me feel jubilant when all three reported catching and releasing a sawfish. Why are sawfish sightings more common now than before?

According to the fishers (who went out to fish amid the lockdown and wishes to remain anonymous), many fishes including elasmobranchs are now more common in the Sundarbans region than they were before. The reason attributed by two of the fishers is that the lockdown imposed for COVID-19 has stopped most of the mechanized fishing trawlers from going out to the sea. As a result, has provided most fishes including sawfishes a breather and allowed them to move further inland.

But one fisher thinks that it is the recent event of the super cyclone ‘Amphan’ (pronounced ‘Umpun’), is the reason as to why there is a sudden rise in the availability of elasmobranchs including sawfishes in the region. According to him, the cyclone flooded the area, raising the water level of the rivers and brought seawater deep inside the mangroves, increasing its salinity, allowing sawfishes to gain access to newer areas.

All three sawfishes were female as recognised by the fishers. They weighed from 5 kg to 8 kg. Due to lockdown in place, I couldn’t visit the field to ground-truth the identity of the sawfishes by showing pictures to the fishers.

One of the fisher maintained that the sawfish he caught had an unusual rostrum which is distinctly narrower than the ones he saw before, and also had smaller teeth with a little gap between them. The fish he caught could be an Anoxypristis cuspidata, which is known to sport a narrow rostrum and is known from the area but not recorded for ages.

The location where the sawfish with the narrow rostrum was caught, using a handline during high tide(Photograph by Asim Gayen).

All three fishers said that they released the sawfishes upon capture, because of what they learnt from the workshop I held last year in disseminating the importance of sawfishes to the ecosystem and the mangroves. They said that other fishers in the region have also collected sawfishes, guitarfishes and sharks in the past couple of months. But they are not sure if they released them.

A specimen of a juvenile Anoxypristis cuspidata collected from 1908 from the Sundarbans region. No specimen-based scientific record of this species exists from the area, in recent years. This specimen remains in the collection of the Zoological Survey of India (Photograph by Priyankar Chakraborty).

It remains to be found if any quantifiable evidence exists between the scarcity of fishing boats at sea and the number of sawfishes in the mangroves. Or if the number of sawfishes observed is related to the occurrence of the recent natural disaster. I cannot go out in the field to assess the situation until the COVID-19 lockdown gets lifted. But we think that this hopeful anecdote continues for a family of fishes who are amongst the most threatened in the world.