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This Disaster On Twitter Is Why You Shouldn't Harass Endangered Animals

<p> <em>Twitter</em> </p>

For many anglers, the photo is half of the trophy. With outstretched arms, waist-high waders and a toothy grin, they hold up their catch proudly, showing the world what they just pulled from the sea. But when an endangered species is involved - and when social media is thrown in the mix - the picture is less a point of pride than a mark of shame for the entire internet to seize upon.

One such debacle lit up among conservationists and marine scientists on Twitter this week, after a young angler posted photos of himself and his friends posing with a sawfish he'd caught in the Florida Keys. The federally protected and endangered animal was laid out on the beach, a cord wrapped around his saw.

(Twitter)

The user and several others claimed to have "cut off the saw and hung it on my wall as a trophy," and made it into "sawfish fin soup" - sentiments that, understandably, outraged conservationists on Twitter (one of the anglers also posted a photo allegedly showing himself with a lemon shark, a species listed as protected under Florida state and federal regulations).

As it turns out, the claims may not have been entirely truthful. The Dodo spoke to the angler who caught the sawfish, a high school sophomore who said that the fish was unintentionally caught and then released alive - his fin not removed. A video showing the fish's release confirmed that. He also noted, "We wanted to ensure the safety of the fish so we kept out of water for a short period of time."

That being said, it's likely that the catch was still against the law.

Experts say that sawfish should never be lifted out of the water, and that just because they swim away, it doesn't necessarily mean that they will live. In fact, injuries and exhaustion have been known to affect certain fish species differently and, for many of them, result in death shortly after release.

Similar to others incidents like it reported recently, fishing for sawfish is illegal under Florida law, and banned by the protections set forth by the Endangered Species Act, under which sawfish are listed as endangered. Under this act, it is illegal to "harm, possess, harass, or handle them in any way." Any sawfish caught must be kept in the water "at all times" - meaning that pulling one onto the beach for a photo opportunity is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Florida regulations also bar anglers from attempting "to bring a sawfish close to you or your vessel" or to "land" a sawfish, meaning to bring the fish out of the water.

Unauthorized handling of a sawfish can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 for a first violation.

While it's not yet clear whether charges will be filed against the anglers in this case, the incident has brought the problem of poor education for anglers - especially when it comes to sawfish - into the spotlight.

The population of smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), the only species native to Florida waters, has been decimated in recent years. Its range has been reduced by 90 percent, while its numbers have fallen by at least 95 percent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Accidental bycatch, overfishing and habitat loss are the major drivers of this decline.

Now, scientists are scrambling to save the iconic fish, famous for their distinctive saw-like rostrum and prehistoric appearance. Globally, all sawfish species have been awarded the strongest protection through the two main global wildlife treaties (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species). Depending on the species, they are listed as either endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And in the U.S., sawfish were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2003.

As conservation programs race to save sawfish from extinction, incidents like the one above are slowing down the process, according to Sonja Fordham, president of the organization Shark Advocates International.

"While many people in Florida know that sawfish are rare, too many don't realize that the species is strictly protected in the U.S., and that any type of harassment or harm is illegal," Fordham told The Dodo, noting that funding for NOAA's Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Plan has been declining in recent years. "Although social media helps to create a strong desire to document the catch, it is imperative for the animal's survival that stress from capture is minimized."

For a precarious group like sawfish, any risk of mortality is too much risk. The loss of just one member of a dying - and ecologically important - species is a high price to pay for a photograph.

To help support sawfish conservation, you can contact members of Congress to voice your support for funding the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Plan and increased commercial fishery monitoring. You can also see these guidelines for how to properly handle a sawfish encounter.

A representative for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told The Dodo that a law enforcement representative is investigating the case. NOAA Fisheries did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Editor's note: The Dodo has chosen not to identify the minors in this story.