Florida Keys Marine Mystery Deepens: Rescued Sawfish May Hold Clues to Mass Die-Off

Florida Keys Marine Mystery Deepens: Rescued Sawfish May Hold Clues to Mass Die-Off

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Biologists have rescued a sick sawfish off the coast of Cudjoe Key in a race against time, hoping to unravel the mystery behind the deaths of nearly 40 endangered smalltooth sawfish in the Florida Keys since late January. The rescue effort is part of a larger investigation into a fish kill that has been plaguing the area since the fall.

On April 5, a member of the public reported seeing an 11-foot male sawfish swimming in circles in shallow water, a behavior that has been observed in distressed fish just before they die. Biologists successfully rescued the sawfish and transported it to the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota for further study.

Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, expressed hope that this unprecedented rescue and rehabilitation effort will bring them closer to understanding the cause of the unusual mortality event.

The sawfish deaths have coincided with a fish kill affecting hundreds of species in the Keys since November. Scientists have ruled out red tide toxins, communicable pathogens, bacterial infections, and abnormal water conditions as potential causes. However, they are investigating the possibility that a toxin called gambierdiscus, which causes ciguatera in humans who eat infected fish, may be responsible for the erratic spinning behavior observed in the affected fish.

Researchers from various institutions, including NOAA, FWC, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida International University, and the University of South Alabama, are working together to solve the mystery. The public has also played a crucial role in reporting sightings of distressed fish.

To report any unhealthy, injured, or dead sawfish, the public is encouraged to contact the FWC Sawfish Hotline at 844-472-9374 or via email at sawfish@myfwc.com. Abnormal fish behavior, fish disease, and fish kills can be reported to FWC's Fish Kill Hotline through the web form MyFWC.com/ReportFishKill or by phone at 800-636-0511.

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