© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Feds announce plans to begin rescuing sick sawfish amid a mysterious die-off

 Florida wildlife officers retrieved a dead sawfish at the Geiger Key Paddle Hut near the Geiger Key Marina.
Carla Bellenger
Florida wildlife officers retrieved a dead sawfish at the Geiger Key Paddle Hut near the Geiger Key Marina.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday it will take the unprecedented step of catching and caring for sick sawfish in an effort to prevent ongoing deaths.

As the number of endangered sawfish deathscontinues to rise in the Lower Keys, federal wildlife officials announced plans Wednesday to take the unprecedented step of trying to rescue sick fish.

“An effort of this kind has never been done before in the United States. The logistics are complex,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement.

Starting next week, the agency said it will begin catching sawfish showing signs of distress to try to prevent more deaths. As of March 24, 28 rare smalltooth sawfish had been confirmed dead, with 109 affected by an ailment scientists have not yet been able to identify. The first death was reported in late January, amid widespread reports of dozens of other species in the Lower Keys spinning and showing signs of distress.

READ MORE: As sawfish deaths mounted, wildlife officers and researchers scrambled to respond, records show

“We suspect that total mortalities are greater, since sawfish are negatively buoyant and thus unlikely to float after death,” NOAA Fisheries’ sawfish recovery coordinator Adam Brame said in the statement. “Given the limited population size of smalltooth sawfish, the mortality of at least two dozen sawfish could have an impact on the recovery of this species.”

NOAA said it will work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Havenworth Coastal Conservation, Ripley’s Aquariums, Mote Marine Lab and Dynasty Marine Associates to catch the fish. Rescued fish will be taken to the groups’ facilities while FWC officials continue to investigate what’s causing other species to become sick.

NOAA officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

The die-off comes in the wake of an unprecedented summer heat wave that drove water temperatures up about 5 degrees on average. Weeks of prolonged heat bleached coral throughout the Keys and killed other species, including starfish and jellyfish.

Scientists worried at the time that the prolonged heat — an event expected to grow worse as climate change raises global temperatures — could have cascading effects. It’s not clear if the heat caused this outbreak. Scientists have also identified multiple toxins found in dead fish and elevated levels in water samples of a toxin linked to ciguatera.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.