To Step on a Sawfish…St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon


Stuart youths pose with a 14-foot sawfish hoisted on a dock around 1916. (Photo Jack E. McDonald courtesy Sandra Henderson Thurlow's book Stuart on the St Lucie)
Stuart, Florida youths pose with a 14-foot sawfish hoisted on a dock around 1916. (Photo Jack E. McDonald courtesy Sandra Henderson Thurlow’s book “Stuart on the St Lucie.”)

I recently heard a great story from Doug Bournique who is executive vice-president of the Indian River Citrus League ( He told me he accidentally stepped on a sawfish! Doug is very vocal about “leaving a legacy” for the Indian River Lagoon. He advocates at government meetings for the reconnection of the waters of the North Fork of the St Lucie River and the St Johns River, as well as “water farming.” He grew up along our Treasure Coast and loves fishing, especially in the area of Sewall’s Point.

Doug  was excited to see a sawfish and  I was excited to hear about it. Seeing an endangered sawfish is a “good sign” for the river.


I have written about sawfish before, and recently I came across the photo at the top of this post in my mother’s book “Stuart on the St Lucie.” This time, with Doug’s story in mind, I looked at the photo a little differently.

It is a curious photo, isn’t it?

The “boys” all dressed up in coats and ties, the younger one on the far right, hand on hip, gazing to the horizon like a Norman Rockwell painting….The gigantic, contoured, muscular, sawfish hanging from a hook like a piece of meat in a butcher shop….in 1916 a common nuisance  perhaps. Today an endangered species…

The photo says a lot about people, about Florida’s history, about humankind, about culture, about sportsmanship, and also about how times and perceptions change…

All sawfishes are now critically endangered. Scientists say they don’t reach sexual maturity until maybe 12 or 14 years old. Their reproduction number increase is very slow like many sharks to which they are related. The are nocturnal. They are remarkable and ancient. They are awesome. They have been overfished.

What if we could find a way to use the sawfish to protect the Indian River Lagoon? What if we could use it as an “endangered species”? This may be difficult as they adapt and can live in both salty and fresh water…

“Single species management” is taking a beating lately as we know. The Cape Sea Side Sparrow, the Everglades Snail Kite, the Florida Panther….Many say when you manage an ecosystem, especially water, for a single species, it is at the expense of all the other animals in the eco-system. Of course the animal we are always most  concerned about is really ourselves. It’s hard to give anything up when you at the top of the food chain….

But that is why being human is so different from being a dinosaur. We can think. We can reason. We can dream. If we want to, we can save the  sawfish and the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon..let’s pick up our sword and win!

10 thoughts on “To Step on a Sawfish…St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. I am proud of the progress we have made. Many good things have happened over this last 3 years. Of course it will not be enough until we have no more to do… But we have been sawing away at it. Thank you for all you have done. Let’s keep working.

  2. The Island they dredged and put in the lagoon near downtown Fort Pierce is calcium. I suspect the rare sawfish is an ocean travler and only come ashore to have babys. maby it can ‘smell’ the calcium that was in the lagoon and has come back

  3. I do not believe overfishing killed off the sawfish because like most of the sharks it had no real food value. I believe a much more treacherous villin was responsible—the real estate developer— A common practice to turn worthless waterfront property into high dollar water front property was pull all the SOFT coquina rock out of the water and let harden to become sea walls. Then it would be protected to withstand hurricanes. Unfotuatly once the SOFT coquina hardened it was usless to nutrilize all the acids forever changing the environment the sawfish and all the other creatures depended on.

  4. I have found soft coquina rock twice. It looked like hard coquina rock but could be broken apart . Milky white calcium would then come out. Acid in water seems to be able to desolve calcium cement only when the tensil strength is low. Concrete sand bags on the bridges have the morter between the bags gone yet the bags remain .I believe because the morter is of lower tensil strength. Barnicals and oysters grow on HARD coquina rock and the next year acid will have tataly desolved them. I believe this is because acid in waves desolved the lower tensil strength and left the hight tensil strength HARD coquina cement untouched.

  5. At the end of Port Malibar road and a little south there is what looks to be where they started to build a causeway and stopped. It is all underwater now but it is calcium shell. It got my attention right after 2004 hurricanes because manitees were all over feeding just south of it far from shore where I thought the grass never grew. It is full of different types of coquina clams— including the ones the Indians liked to eat. For the last several weeks I have been spreading the along the shores. I am just one person yet I see so much comeing back to life from what I am doing—could you imagine what would happen If I had help.

  6. I caught a sawfish once fishing (It was a little guy and it down in Pompano) It scared me so much I threw him right back and told him to stay away from my fishing pole. Really interesting piece. Thank you!

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