Malaysia: Return of the river monsters

Kristy Inus New Straits Times 10 Aug 14;

THE shark-like fish, characterised by a long, tooth-shaped snout, may well seem like a creature from the past for fishermen in Sabah, as the singular fish has not been seen for nearly two decades.

The last sighting of the sawfish was in the interior near Sukau, along Sungai Kinabatangan in 1996. The species was long feared extinct.

But in recent months, hopes have been renewed that the sawfish population in Borneo is bouncing back from the brink, as a 5-metre sawfish weighing 300kg was reported to have been caught by fishermen in Bruit, Sarawak in June.

A sawfish caught in Bruit, Sarawak in June.

Dr Mabel Manjaji Matsumoto from Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s (UMS) Borneo Marine Research Institute, had identified the carcass as belonging to a largetooth sawfish, one of three types of sawfish known to be found in rivers in Sabah and Sarawak.

“Based on a newspaper report on the incident, the fishermen accidentally caught it in their trawl net. Looking at its size, we believe it was a mature adult.

“However, we could not get any more information as we were told the fish was cut up and divided among the villagers.

“We hope the fish had given birth to young, so there might still be several sawfish in the waters there.

“It also proves that the species has not gone extinct. They probably have a very low population and have settled far from human settlements.”

Matsumoto, who specialises in marine bio-diversity and fish taxonomy, said he has been researching the species for nearly 20 years.

She also compared the difference that 40 years could make to the sawfish population.

“When we interviewed elderly villagers near Sungai Kinabatangan, Sungai Segama and Labuk Bay back in the 1990s, they told us that in the 1960s and 1970s, it was common to accidentally catch sawfish in their nets, as the fish was abundant.

“Their numbers started to dwindle in the 1980s, and we only started coming in to do research work on the species in the mid-1990s.

“However, we have yet to come across a live sawfish specimen, as even the ones we examined in 1996 were carcasses.

“We had left disposable cameras and a tank for the villagers there in the event they came across a sawfish.”

Their snout, or rostra, was known to be used for cultural purposes, and Matsumoto said her team also discovered some stored in jars in Chinese medicine shops in Sandakan, although it had never been ascertained if the snout has any medicinal properties.

Sawfish fins are also much sought after, much like shark’s fin, and can reach up to a few thousand ringgit, she said.

“Sawfish move only within a limited area, which makes them vulnerable to obstacles such as gill nets.

“There are limited records about the species, so we are not sure how big they can grow.

“But from records gathered more than 20 years ago, we know sawfish can give birth to almost a dozen pups,” she said, adding that their research included looking at snouts preserved or kept by villagers along the Segama, Labuk and Kinabatangan rivers.

Matsumoto said besides accidentally netting the fish, another reason for the declining sawfish population was pollution from oil palm plantations.

“Their snouts are full of sensors to help them catch fish and hunt prey. When they detect dirty water, they will try to move elsewhere.

“However, sawfish are a riverine species and cannot escape to the sea. Their very survival is in question.”

She said the country could learn from other regions facing similar challenges with the species, such as the United States and Australia.

“Awareness is high there, and some communities have managed to reverse the species’ dwindling population.

“We think that this is also achievable here, although we really need to work harder to achieve that.”

She said what is needed are new initiatives, in which sawfish conservation is included in existing or new coastal development initiatives.

“Since all sawfish species are already legally protected in Malaysia, it is important to ensure that in states where sawfish range, the strictest national wildlife protection legislation should be applied.

“This includes a prohibition on targeted take, retention and sale,” she said.

Matsumoto is already a local contact for the Sawfish Network, comprising international researchers and volunteer experts, which aims to mobilise a coordinated global group to play roles in the implementation of recommended strategies for sawfish conservation.

But for now, she can only hope that the initiative is not too late.

Not seen in 20 years
New Straits Times 10 Aug 14;

AS a young boy, fisherman Mohd Salleh Anifah remembered seeing sawfish caught by villagers in Kampung Tempurung in Kuala Penyu.

“I am nearly 60 years old, and I have not seen any brought up in my adult life,” said Salleh, who has been a fisherman all his life.

“We call it ikan parangan here, but there are two types. One with the saw-like fangs and another without.”

Researchers believe the other type of ikan parangan referred to by the locals is the shovel-head shark, which can still be found at sea.

The sawfish are normally caught in estuaries, rivers or close to the sea shore.

Another fisherman who identified himself as Gaman, from Menggatal, said sawfish could be found near rivermouths.

“Sawfish flesh is less pungent compared with other types of sharks when cooked,” he said.

“As for the jurung (sawfish snout), people would keep it as decorative items or use it for rituals,” he said.

Like Mohd Salleh, Gaman too has not seen any for more than 20 years now.

He showed two such snouts, dried and preserved, which served as a personal collection. Gaman said that was probably the only evidence he could show to point to the existence of the exotic fish.