Florida wildlife biologists confirm the 13th critically endangered smalltooth sawfish of the year was reported in the St. Lucie River last week after a 5-year-old reeled in the toothy animal from a dock.
The exceptionally rare catch may be a hopeful sign that the St. Lucie River could be reclaiming its historical role as a nursery for the imperiled creatures, who were driven away by decades of coastal development and habitat destruction.
Former Cleveland Clinic Martin Health President Rob Lord was fishing with his grandson in the South Fork of the river July 30, using a live shrimp as bait, when they hooked the sawfish.
"A rare catch anywhere," Lord posted to Facebook. "Very cool! If you happen to catch one, there are researchers who want to hear about it."
Protecting the river: Why isn't the St. Lucie River protected as a critical habitat?
One of those researchers is biologist Gregg Poulakis, who leads the state's sawfish research team in Port Charlotte. He confirmed to TCPalm on Thursday that this latest catch brings the river's total to more than a dozen for the year.
The next step for the state's sawfish research team is to gather more details from Lord about the catch, including the length of the animal and its exact location, according to their protocol.
"The question is: Is there a nursery that's trying to reestablish?" Poulakis told TCPalm recently, referring to an uptick in reports. "This is some good news. They're starting to come back a little bit. Now we want to keep our finger on the pulse of that."
It's important to note that if you catch a sawfish, try to keep it in the water, according to Annmarie Fearing, a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi who is studying the animals.
"Awesome news!" Fearing wrote on Twitter Saturday in response to the latest sawfish sighting in the river. "Make sure to keep sawfish in the water if you ever catch one ... it does help reduce their stress."
Other sawfish sightings have made local headlines in recent months.
In April, a 13-year-old was fishing from a dock in the St. Lucie River when a sawfish started swimming in his direction. He recorded on his smartphone and shared the footage with researchers, who set out on a multiday trip to search for the animal.
A spearfisher this May documented a video just offshore of Martin County of the ultra-rare moment when a sawfish used its rostrum — an extended "nose" that resembles a chainsaw — to swipe at a school of bait.
Sawfish are endangered species
Sawfish are part of the ray family and there are five species of sawfish worldwide. The smalltooth sawfish is the only type to be found in Florida waters.
Sawfish can grow up to 17 feet long and weigh as much as 700 pounds, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Declining habitat and fishing nets have wreaked havoc on sawfish populations. They were the first marine fish in 2003 to be named to the Endangered Species List. The best region to see a sawfish is in Southwest Florida, including Everglades National Park.
The St. Lucie River, which meanders through 35 miles of Martin and St. Lucie counties, is also teeming with other threatened and endangered species such as manatees and sea turtles.
Yet it is one of the few Florida tributaries the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not classify as "critical habitat." The agency defines that as "essential to conservation of the species," which could open the door for increased federal protections.
Report a sawfish sighting
Florida wildlife biologists encourage the public to report their sawfish sightings by calling the sawfish hotline at 844-472-9347 or sawfish@MyFWC.com.
Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter focusing on issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and give him a call at 772-978-2224.
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Over a dozen endangered sawfish reported in St. Lucie River this year