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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Sawfish data requested net rule change meeting Aug. 25

Seen any sawfish lately?

If you've spotted or caught a sawfish, scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory would like to know about it. Tonya Wiley, a staff biologist with the Center for Shark Research and a part of the Sawfish Conservation Biology Project, is looking for information about the odd-looking critters with the big, saw-like nose.

Sawfish are in the same class of fish as sharks, rays and skates. They have a cartilaginous skeleton and are actually a ray with a shark-like body. Modern-day sawfish appeared about 56 million years ago and are distant cousins to the first sawfish which, according to Mote scientists, arose about 100 million years ago.

Project scientists like Wiley are conducting fishing surveys from Tampa Bay to the outer Florida Keys in search of the fish. When a sawfish is captured, the scientists record biological data such as length, weight, sex, physical condition and environmental data. Each sawfish is fitted with a plastic dorsal-fin tag, which has a unique number for identification if recaptured. Recaptures supply information such as movement, growth and habitat usage.

Scientists are also compiling a sighting and capture database to provide data beyond that which is achievable by surveys. Reports from the public, fishing guides, other researchers and commercial boats all help define both pre-decline and current distribution and abundance.

If anyone has caught or encountered a sawfish, or does in the future, Mote would like to know about it. Report as much information as is available, such as date and time of capture, location, habitat type, water quality, method of capture or encounter and fish size. Any photos that are available from the encounter are also helpful.

To report information regarding a sawfish capture or encounter, e-mail to sawfish@mote.org, or call 800-691-MOTE.

Sawfish were once common inhabitants of the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida and the Atlantic coast north to New Jersey. Today, saws are pretty much found only in Everglades National Park and adjacent areas as far as Tampa Bay on the west coast and St. Augustine on the east coast. The population has probably declined to less than 5 percent of its original size, and models indicate that it will take several decades, and possibly much longer, for the population to recover, Wiley predicts.

Old-time Cortezians remember when sawfish were thick in Palma Sola Bay. The Islander has occasionally run pictures of catches of the big fish - well, 8-footers or so - off the north end of the Island.

There are regulations prohibiting the taking of sawfish in Everglades National Park, and the "harvest, landing or sale of sawfish" has been banned, but only Louisiana has laws on the books to prohibit "the taking, possessing or the attempt to possess any sawfish."

"An encounter with a sawfish by fishermen, boaters and divers is an incredible experience," Wiley said. "To allow this animal to disappear from our waters would deprive future generations of one of the oceans truly amazing animals."

Shark be-gone
Speaking of big fish, researchers think they've finally come up with a shark repellent that seems to work, a task that's eluded biologists for about 50 years.

Ironically, the reason for the research is in part to keep sharks away from long-line hooks targeting tuna and swordfish in an attempt to halt the overfishing of sharks worldwide.

The yellowish chemical apparently instigates a "flight reaction" in the field-tested species. More testing is planned on other types of sharks, like great whites and makos.

The central ingredient in the new shark repellent, called A-2, is found in dead sharks. Apparently, sharks don't like to hang around from what their tiny little brains perceive as shark graveyards and go away. Squirt the chemical, and sharks be gone.

Further research is pending, as is a patent on the stuff by researchers.

Net-specification rule scheduled for Bradenton
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials have scheduled a series of net-specification meetings throughout the state to receive comment on some changes to fishing net laws.

A local hearing is scheduled at 6 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Manatee County Administrative Center, 1112 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

The rule change addresses the number of meshes per foot of net. The draft rule "sets a limit of 14 meshes per foot of corkline," according to the FWC. "It has been suggested that as many as 32 meshes per foot of corkline should be allowed. In light of public testimony at earlier workshops, staff is considering making a recommendation to increase the number of meshes allowed per foot of corkline to 24 and would like to explore such a recommendation at the rule development workshops."

There are no changes in the 500-square-foot net requirements enacted in the 1995 gillnet ban in state waters.

To read the entire proposed rule, go to: myfwc.com/whatsnew/04/draft-68B-4.0081-st.html.

Midnight Pass redux
The Sarasota County Commission has agreed to plunk down $637,000 to a consultant to attempt to get federal, state and regional permits to reopen Midnight Pass, that migrating channel that closed 20 years ago between Siesta and Casey keys.

That's 20 years of bickering, feuding, sniping and general obfuscation.

The pass migrated north beginning in 1983, threatening two beachfront homes. The homeowners received an emergency permit to relocate the pass away from their homes before the houses were inundated. The inlet switch didn't take and, pleading they were running out of money after about eight attempts, the pass was allowed to close.

Now, with a change in environmental climate politically in Sarasota, the county commission is trying to reopen the inlet. Proponents tout the increase in water quality in Little Sarasota Bay; opponents decry the loss of mangroves and seagrass beds the new pass would displace.

One thing is certain: The proposed channel is a big damn thing.

The original migrating inlet was sort of a Y-shaped thing, with semi-deep channels going from the Gulf of Mexico through the inlet itself, then angling both north and south around a flood tidal delta called the Jim Neville Preserve and then hooking up to the Intracoastal Waterway.

The new channel would be one big inlet, running almost due east-west from the Gulf to the Intracoastal, cutting in at the south tip of the Preserve lands.

Total cost of the project, during its projected 30-year life and with occasional maintenance dredging, has been placed at $15 million. Funding sources are still being sought, officials said.

About 330,000 cubic yards of material would be placed on nearby beaches if the permits are issued for the project.

Should they reopen the pass?

Midnight Pass has probably been the single most controversial subject in Sarasota County for more than two decades. It has pitted friends against friends - or ex-friends against ex-friends - for all that time.

The interior of the former pass is today a lagoonal environment, not an inshore pass system. Take the water quality you find in Longboat Pass and compare it with what you find in Palma Sola Bay northside and you get an idea of the difference, except there are a lot more mangroves and seagrass beds inside Midnight Pass than you'll find in Palma Sola.

Probably one of the most telling aspects about Midnight Pass comes from a real estate investor buddy of mine. He was looking at a waterfront house in Little Sarasota Bay the other day and thought it was a steal at about $750,000 until he went out to the seawall and looked at the water.

Brown. No visibility. Yuck.

"It'd be a $2 million home if they'd just clean up the bay," he told me, declining to make an offer on the house.

If the pass is reopened, he probably will have missed a heck of a deal. Perhaps the deals are the deal in the reopening proposal.

Sandscript factoid
According to Mote's Wiley, "sawfish slash the saw from side to side through the water to strike at fish, especially mullet, jacks and ladyfish. The teeth on the saw are strong and pointed, stunning, impaling, or killing the fish. The fish is then consumed. Small sawfish also use the saw to grub around the bottom to uncover crustaceans.

"Sawfish commonly reach lengths of 18 feet. It is not known how long they live, how quickly they grow, when they sexually mature or how often they reproduce.

"Newborn sawfish pups are about 18 inches long and have a gelatinous sheath over the saw, to protect the mother during birth, which quickly dissolves in saltwater."

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