You saw sawfish!

Media releases, Other

Hundreds of citizen science sightings reveal opportunities to protect Australia’s four iconic sawfish species

Green Sawfish (P. zijsron) – Weipa, QLD 2019
  • New hotspots for green sawfish in Weipa and Karratha.
  • A sawfish nursery in the Brisbane River until about 1950.
  • Evidence that sawfish have not completely disappeared from NSW waters, with a Newcastle sighting.
  • Juvenile sawfish reported down the WA coast.
  • More action needed in Queensland as only one species reported south of Cooktown.
  • A new call to action to step up conservation and assess the impact of net-free zones in Weipa and Queensland’s east coast.
  • And keep reporting your sightings. Together we can save sawfish.

In January 2019 researchers from Sharks and Rays Australia called on Australians to report sightings of sawfish: in the wild; in old photos and on the trophy wall. Hundreds of Australians responded.

Green Sawfish (P. zijsron) – Carnarvon 1948

“The public has generated a completely new data set on the historic and current distributions of these rare and endangered species,” says Dr Barbara Wueringer, the Principal Scientist of Sharks And Rays Australia (SARA).

“Sawfish are remarkable hunters. They hang around in the mud, detect the electric fields of passing prey, and slice and dice them with their saw-like snouts ready for dinner.”

The team have received over 500 submissions from people around Australia who contributed their photographs, specimens and stories of sawfish, the most endangered of all sharks and rays globally. Submissions included verified sightings of live fish, photographs from family albums, and additionally 140 sawfish specimens donated to the research project.

Only four per cent of sightings and reports came from New South Wales, but they were significant. They included a report of a 2002 accidental capture and release of a green sawfish at Hawke’s Nest and a possible sighting near Newcastle in 2018. The last confirmed green sawfish had been at Tweed Heads in 1969.

Further confirmed sightings could lead to the protection of the species in NSW waters.

Queensland had 42 per cent of sightings and reports. This includes sightings of narrow sawfish confirmed south of Cooktown. However, data from the Southern Gulf of Carpentaria is scarce.

Western Australia had 40 per cent of submissions. Recent freshwater and dwarf sawfish reports were limited to northwest of King Sound. However, green sawfish appear to be more widely distributed, with many sightings of groups of juveniles reported as far south as Carnarvon.

14 per cent of sightings were from the Norther Territory, and a couple of lookalikes were spotted in Victoria.

Most sightings occurred around human population centres such as Darwin (NT) and Weipa (QLD), or the coastal towns of the Pilbara region (WA) – areas that typically have nets for fishing or protection from sharks.

These nets can be deadly to sawfish. So, researchers need to know if higher numbers of sawfish are found inside net-free zones that have been established near Weipa and Darwin.

They’re calling on commercial fishers, particularly in Queensland, who may visit these remote waters to lend a hand and report their sightings.

Forty years ago, sawfish were regularly seen off Sydney and the east coast, and Perth and up the west coast. Today they’re rarely seen outside of the Gulf of Carpentaria, NT and the Kimberley.

 “Your sightings, no matter how long ago they happened, will help us work out how many sawfish there used to be, how many remain, and how we can help them recover,” says Barbara.

Tonight, Barbara will share her research on sawfish as part of an evening of ‘Shark Discovery’ at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, joined by underwater cinematographer Jon Shaw and shark expert Adam Stow.

She hopes visitors and the broader public will get involved and report their sightings at

“We’re working with local Indigenous Ranger groups, fishers, and landowners, and with scientists from around the world.

“But to make a real difference we’re now calling for wider public participation. Through this citizen science initiative you can make the difference to sawfish survival.”

SARA is based in Cairns. Their research is supported by the Save Our Seas Foundation (based in Geneva), a Queensland Citizen Science Grant from the Queensland Government, and the US-based Shark Conservation Fund.

All sightings generated by the project will be shared with Team Sawfish at Murdoch University, WA and sawfish researchers from Charles Darwin University, NT.

Social media: @SharksAndRaysAU on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

For more information about the project, visit:

Photos below and/or at

Background information

Sawfish species

Four of the five species of sawfish are found in Australian waters. They can grow to lengths that vary between three and seven metres. Their long, tooth-lined snouts are full of pores that are sensitive to movement and changes in electric field, giving them a sixth sense for catching prey.

  • Freshwater (or largetooth) sawfish Pristis pristis grows to a length of about six metres, and can be found northern Australia, from the Kimberley to Cape York Peninsula. It’s rostrum – the saw-like nose extension – has 17 to 24 teeth per side.
  • Dwarf sawfish (Pristis clavate) reaches about three metres in length, and is found within sand and mud flats near mangroves in the shallow coastal and estuarine waters of Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia.
  • The green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) can grow to seven metres in length, possibly the largest sawfish. They used to be found as far south as Sydney. The green sawfish is currently listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
  • Narrow sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidata) are the species of sawfish found most offshore, in clearer waters. Narrow sawfish are the fastest reproducing species of sawfish, and consequently are the most common species of sawfish in Australia. They are regularly sighted on the coastlines of Queensland, Northern Territory, the Gulf of Carpentaria and Western Australia.

Submissions received by Sharks And Rays Australia since early 2019

  • To date, SARA has received 500 submissions from all corners of the continent.
  • 353 submissions had location information, which were either GPS marks or detailed descriptions of the location that allowed researchers to pin it within 500m.
  • These submissions include sightings where researchers could not be completely certain it was a sawfish, and some were sharks, sawsharks, or guitarfish. SARA welcomes these sightings, as some animals that people could not identify, turned out to be sawfish.
  • 394 sightings were identified as sawfish, and of those, 301 sightings had detailed location data attached to it, while the other 93 provided general locations that can be used to guide future sampling efforts by the scientist.
  • The earliest sighting reported to SARA occurred in 1802.
  • Of the 301 sawfish sightings that had detailed location data, 38.7 per cent of all sightings occurred between 2018 and 2020, while a further 29.8 per cent occurred between 2010 and 2017. This also means that close to 70 per cent of all sightings reported to us occurred since 2010. 
  • Most animals were reported from Queensland (41.7 per cent), followed by Western Australia (39.7 per cent), but sawfish were also reported from New South Wales (4.3 per cent) and the Northern Territory (13.9 per cent).
  • SARA received close to 140 sawfish saws as donations. DNA samples taken from these saws allow scientists to identify when the populations of the different species of sawfish crashed in different parts of the world.

Advice to fishing enthusiasts and citizen scientists from SARA

  • SARA’s sawfish sighting campaign is ongoing so please submit your sighting to Please be advised that we do not ask people to target sawfish, which is illegal without an appropriate permit.
  • Possession of saws without a permit is illegal in most states, and while we understand that some people want to hold on to antique saws, we appreciate that others donate them to science
  • Taking these saws as trophies has a huge impact on sawfish populations. If you catch one, please release them alive and report sightings back to us.

About sawfish

Sawfish are rays that have a shark-like body and a unique toothed rostrum, which is also called the saw. Sawfish use the saw to detect their prey as well as kill it, as Dr Barbara Wueringer, the principal scientist at Sharks And Rays Australia (SARA), discovered. Sawfish deliver fast saw-swipes aimed at prey that can split a fish in half. Sawfish are stealth predators. A collaborative study between Dr Wueringer and scientists from Murdoch University and Newcastle University found that the shape of the saw is so streamlined that prey fish may not even detect when a sawfish swipes at them. 

The saw is easily tangled in fishing nets, however. While analysing sawfish bycatch data from the Queensland Shark Control program, Dr Wueringer found that sawfish were mainly caught in gill nets. In most locations along Queensland’s east coast, sawfish populations had dropped to zero in the 1990s, before the Queensland Government removed gill nets in most locations and replaced them with drumlines in a bid to reduce bycatch.

Old sawfish saws are often seen in pubs and bars around Australia. Before protections came into place, sawfish were often killed for these trophies. Ongoing work by SARA in remote areas of the Gulf of Carpentaria has found that some fishers still take trophies, and now amputate saws before releasing the animal. This practice illegal and typically causes a slow death through starvation. The saw does not grow back.

Photos and descriptions, and video footage

A juvenile green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) caught and released over the holidays in 2019. Detailed submissions like this – complete with GPS, bait information and video – are invaluable.
Freshwater Sawfish (P. Pristis) – Burdekin, QLD 1966
Sharp-eyed citizen scientist Graham spotted the mention of a six-metre sawfish caught in 1966 in Burdekin in a newspaper article. Submissions like this are highly valuable to SARA, as they show how overfishing has dramatically changed distribution in the last 50 years. This freshwater sawfish Pristis pristis was incorrectly identified as a green sawfish.
Freshwater Sawfish (P. Pristis) – Keep River, NT 2018
Ben Fisher reported his sightings of freshwater sawfish caught in the Keep River, NT. He caught two and provided SARA with measurements and photos. Ben said seeing them swim off was incredible.
This historical submission comes from Tami near Carnarvon. What’s especially interesting is we were able to find the original article in the paper from the 1930’s. SARA is using this data in distribution assessment. It’s all important.
This gem from Torquay, Victoria circa 1973 actually shows a sawshark (Pristophorus). Unlike sawfish, sawsharks are not considered endangered. SARA welcomes these sightings, as some animals that people could not identify, turned out to be sawfish.
Green Sawfish (P. zijsron) – Wessel Islands, NT 2018
Victoria with Waterline Charters reported the sighting of a sawfish abandoned in a fishers net. When the crew found the sawfish it was thrashing around, and was distressed and malnourished – you could see its bones clearly and areas where the net was wound tightly around its rostrum were raw. It had likely been entangled for some time. The crew were able to release the sawfish, which we are very thankful for!
Green Sawfish (P. zijsron) – Tweed River at Tweed Heads, NSW 1969
A large female green sawfish was caught in a fisherman’s net in the Tweed River, 1969. The figure shows four men working to get her out of the river, onto the beach near Jack Evan’s Porpoise Pool. The Porpoise Pool, or Dolphin Oceanarium was one of the earliest tourist attractions on the Gold Coast. She was ultimately lifted out of the water by crane into the pool, where she gave birth to several pups. SARA has seen the original newspaper articles of about this sawfish, but this submission is the first to supply us with pictures!
Dwarf Sawfish (P. clavata) – Weipa, QLD 2011
Green Sawfish (P. zijsron) – Exmouth Pier, WA 2015
Green Sawfish (P. zijsron) – Weipa, QLD 2017