‘Aba’ means “one” in the Emberá language spoken by the people that live in the remote Darien province and indigenous territories in eastern Panama. This was the name given by our team of fishers and MarAlliance Community Officer, Hayro Cunampio, to the first sawfish that they captured and released in May as part of our ongoing in-water monitoring in this region. Aba, a 130cm-long male largetooth sawfish (still a juvenile as this species doesn’t reach maturity until around 3m in length), is also the first sawfish captured by a research team in Central America in over 20 years. These incredibly rare rays, once encountered along both coasts of Panama and in the coastal waters of most tropical countries around the world, have disappeared from all but a few sites mostly due to accidental and directed captures in fisheries. While the incredible rainforests of the Darien are known for being one of the last strongholds in the country for the rare jaguar and harpy eagle, we can now include largetooth sawfish to this list of iconic yet highly threatened species that still remain in the region.
After collecting several measurements, photos, and a tissue sample that will be used for genetic analyses, Aba was carefully released back into the dark brown waters of the river by our very excited team. And this is not a one-off event. Thanks in large part to the on-the-ground work that Hayro has been doing to develop a network of fishers in the Darien region, we have received information on six other sawfish captured since December of 2020. What’s more exciting is that, while these fishers previously probably would have kept the sawfish to consume the meat and/or sell the tooth-lined rostrum (which are unfortunately desired by buyers for creating spurs used in rooster fighting), they are now collecting valuable data that can be used for conservation, and then releasing these sawfish back into the wild alive. Our work now continues with a combination of outreach and education to build awareness of the importance of sawfish conservation and generate local pride for these remaining River Guardians, as well as with capacity-building, training, and data collection with fishers and students so that more data are collected not just on sawfish but the other vulnerable species that inhabit the waters of Darien.