Josh Jorgensen didn't know what he had hooked in the Atlantic Ocean east of Stuart on Florida's Treasure Coast.
"Don't know what it could be, man," he said into a camera on Aug. 16. "It could be a huge stingray, could be a hammerhead. Could be anything."
But a smalltooth sawfish? Though the fish has been reported off the Treasure Coast before, the critically endangered species is most concentrated in southwestern Florida coastal waters. Still, this didn't feel like the stingrays and sharks Jorgensen had caught. He had a feeling.
"I felt these incredibly weird head shakes," he told the Tampa Bay Times.
The beast pulled the boat wherever it wanted and Jorgensen left the vessel for the safety of the shoreline. As he reeled in, the sawfish's serrated snout, or rostrum, peeked out of the water. Jorgensen, 26, who hosts the online BlacktipH fishing show, gave what he later called a conservative size estimate: 17 feet and 700 pounds. He said it took a "solid hour" to bring the sawfish in; he released it and reported it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Sightings north of southwest Florida are especially welcome news to the scientific community. The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) historically roamed U.S. waters from Texas to New York. In the summer, the larger fish migrated north up the Atlantic coast. But its ranks were depleted following decades of overfishing and habitat loss.
Larger sawfish sightings up Florida's east coast in recent years is a "great sign" that the endangered species is rebounding, said George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida.
The smalltooth sawfish is not to be confused with its cousin, the largetooth sawfish, which is functionally extinct in the United States. The sawfish is a modified ray and an elasmobranch, a cartilaginous fish that includes sharks, skates and rays.
The fish shakes its long snout with denticles — a type of sharp scale — to stun and impale smaller fish and eat them. The snout typically makes up a quarter of the sawfish's length, which can reach up to 20 feet.
Before the species became protected, first by Florida in 1992 and by the federal government in 2003, fishermen either relished a sawfish catch or hated it, and killed them either way. Commercial fishermen didn't like that the fish got tangled in gill nets, and sports fishermen prized their size and cut off their saws.
"Any sawfish caught was a dead one," Burgess said. "The saw was used as a trophy. You can't go into virtually any restaurant or bar in south Florida and not see a sawfish rostrum hanging on a wall."
Sawfish were always rare, Burgess said, and because of that, the species flew under the radar. But the rare fish became rarer, and in the 1990s scientists began to realize how dire the situation was.
"When the lights went on in the scientific community, then we had to scramble," he said.
While overfishing and loss of mangrove habitat are to blame, Burgess said the way smalltooth sawfish reproduce also can stunt the population for decades. The fish grow slowly, and sexual maturity isn't reached until they're 10 feet. Litters are small, usually less than a dozen, and not all "pups" reach maturity, Burgess said.
It is illegal to keep the species these days, but sometimes fishermen hook sawfish by accident. Amanda Nalley, a FWC spokeswoman, said anglers should never bring the fish into a boat or onshore, and should release the fish as safely and quickly as possible.
She recommends unhooking the fish, if it's safe. If not, try to cut the line as close to the fish as possible.
"Be smart about it and do what is best for the sawfish and you," Nalley said.
Anglers are encouraged to report the size of the fish, location, depth of water and other relevant information to the International Sawfish Encounter Database and to the FWC.
Contact Jack Suntrup at [email protected] or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.