Discovering a species in the 21st century is exciting but to discover two new species is super-exciting. 

By Rupi Mangat

Above: Artist’s impression of One of the newly discovered sixgilled sawshark species (Pliotrema kajae). Copyright: Simon Weigmann,

Published: The East African Nation media 11-17 April 2020

These bottom dwelling sharks support long saw-like snouts called rostrums with which they stun, rip and eat their prey. They are so new to science that they have never been photographed in the ocean!

A team of scientists led by Dr Per Berggren from the Marine MEGAfauna Lab at Newcastle University, UK  monitoring fish caught by small scale fishers in Zanzibar, Kenya and Madagascar came across the first sawshark specimens at the fish landing site in the village of Kizimkazi-Dimbani in Zanzibar. It was an exciting and unexpected discovery and soon followed by another in Madagascar. The two new species are Pliotrema kajae from Madagascar and Pliotrema annae  from Zanzibar. There were also 20 sawsharks caught by a prawn trawler in Kenya in September 2019 but still need to be determined what species they are.

Fish landng bay East Africa @Per Berggren (800x533)
Fish landing bay in East Africa @Per Berggren

Facing Extinction

The research on marine megafauna which started in 1998 along the western Indian Ocean includes studying marine megafauna like dolphins, whales and sharks.

However, scientists warn that the two new species of sawfish may be threatened with extinction already with the biggest threat from small scale fishers using driftnets and bottom set gillnets.

The aim of the research is to better understand the diversity of marine species in the region, which species are more threatened by fishers and most important to protect biodiversity hotspots.

Small-scale fisheries employ around 95% of the world’s fishers and are important for food and earning money especially in tropical developing countries. However there is very little information available about small-scale fishers like how many fishers there are, and where, when and how they fish, as well what they catch. This makes it difficult for governments to develop management programmes to ensure sustainable fishing and protect the ecosystems and livelihoods of the fishers and the communities that depend on them.

In 2019, this team of scientists reported that the number of sharks and rays caught were under-reported in East Africa and the nearby islands. There is a real risk of species going extinct before they’re even discovered.

The full article will appear in July 2020 issue of Swara published by the East African Wildlife Society