The smalltooth sawfish may soon become the first marine fish living in U.S. waters to be listed as an endangered species. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) last week concluded that the sawfish, a shark relative, was "in danger of extinction" due to fish net entanglements and habitat loss. Scientists believe the U.S. population, which once ranged from the Gulf of Mexico to North Carolina, has declined by as much as 99%, with survivors confined to a few areas off Florida.
There has been a long debate about whether humans can drive marine organisms to extinction, since seagoing species often produce millions of offspring and are widely distributed (Science, 25 July 1997, p. 486). Researchers have identified just one marine mollusk, a limpet that lived off New England, that has gone extinct in the 20th century. And NMFS has listed just one other fully marine fish, Mexico's tautog, as endangered. But the American Fisheries Society last year warned that dozens of other marine fish species are at risk. In particular, coastal species like the sawfish that grow slowly, mature late, and produce relatively few young are vulnerable to being wiped out by overfishing, pollution, and other human activities.
Sonja Fordham of the Center for Marine Conservation, which asked for the sawtooth's listing, says NMFS's move "sends an important warning that marine fish can indeed be threatened by human activities." The listing is due to be finalized later this year.