A dead longcomb sawfish, a critically endangered species of shark, was hauled in Sindhudurg, a district in Maharashtra, on Sunday morning. Local fishermen said the 15-foot-long carcass weighed nearly 700 kg, and the fish must have died of suffocation as its snout was found entangled in the net they had cast.
The fish, a member of the shark family, is listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the Red List issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and falls under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
“On Saturday night, we had cast our nets close to shoreline for our daily catch. On Sunday, as I was pulling them in, I realised that a massive fish was trapped in one of the nets,” said Munir Mujawar, a fisherman from Vijaydurg. “It took five men to pull the fish out of the water. Once on board, we saw that its snout was entangled in the net, which most likely suffocated the fish.”
As per the endangered list of marine species issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), sawfish population is under threat owing to trophy angling, for food, illegal sale to aquariums and elimination by fishermen to prevent the fish from consuming their catch.
Another fisherman from the area said the species is on the decline along the entire western coast of India. “About 20 years ago, we used to regularly spot this shark. However, the population has declined drastically in the last 10 years owing to increasing water pollution,” said Khalil Vasta, a fisherman from Sindhudurg. “The fish is sold for Rs1.5 lakh in the domestic market.”
Marine biologists said that the shark is prone to entanglement in fishing nets owing to its long snout, which has 31 teeth. “Being such a large animal, the fish has to move constantly so that it can breathe,” said Sajan John, head of marine projects at Wildlife Trust of India. “Once their snout gets caught in the fishing nets, their movement gets restricted. In their bid to break free, they get entangled further and eventually get choked to death.”
He added that there is no clear indication on the population of the sawfish, but their numbers in the wild are dwindling. “There is hardly any research done or protection offered to these animals,” said John. “Their body is made of cartilage and the species is an intermediate to fish with bones under the evolutionary cycle.”
Researchers said the sawfish has been spotted mostly along the Gulf of Mexico, Australia and South-East Asia. “The species is extremely rare to be found in Indian peninsula. After witnessing small numbers across the world, IUCN labelled the species as critically endangered. Even a single death, such as this, can put the entire population at risk,” said senior scientist and marine consultant, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute.
He added that in case of the fish getting entangled in a net, its gills should be immersed in water during the rescue period and the net should be removed and the fish released quickly.