Indigenous artist uses his work to fight illegal fishing of endangered sawfish

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Indigenous artist Rodney Lucas has spent 35 years fishing in the crystal clear waters off the Karumba Coast in Queensland’s Gulf of Carpentaria.

Renowned internationally for its abundant marine life, anglers from all over flock to these shores to try their luck with a reel.

But the popular practice is wreaking havoc on unique underwater species like sawfish.

Karumba is a popular tourist destination in the Gulf of Queensland.(ABC News: Dominique Schwartz)

Hunted for its saw-like nose, or rostrum, the once thriving population is now endangered across the region.

Although illegal to kill, sawfish are still actively caught and mutilated for their saw function, while net fishing has also contributed to the population decline.

But over the past six years, Mr Lucas has convinced tourists to trade the idea of ​​a trophy for an even better prize.

Tagalaka man uses plaster models, steel and fiberglass to create large saw trophies that showcase vibrant indigenous paintings or custom banners.

Each job is done by hand and can take up to 12 hours to complete.

He hopes the artwork will be privileged over the real thing and educate tourists about the vulnerability of the species.

“It’s about raising awareness about the sawfish. If you’re not from the area, you won’t know how endangered it is.

Man in navy shirt stands in studio with hand resting on large model of sawfish bill
Rod Lucas has lived in Karumba for 35 years and has been creating his works for six years.(North West Queensland ABC: Julia Andre)

“This way, tourists who come to fish can take home a large replica of the saw, and it’s hard to tell the difference between a real saw and my replicas,” he said.

Mr. Lucas’ work has turned heads in the conservation community.

Dr Barbara Wueringer is the founder and director of Sharks and Rays Australia (SARA).

Large models of sawfish beaks with native artwork painted on them
Mr. Lucas incorporates native artwork into his designs.(North West Queensland ABC: Julia Andre)

“The sawfish is of traditional importance to many Indigenous groups in Australia.

“It’s now very important that every sawfish that has an interaction with a human survive that interaction and doing these sawfish casts is an absolutely fantastic idea,” she said.

The fate of the sawfish

Globally, sawfish are considered the most endangered family of sharks and rays, according to Dr Wueringer.

“The Gulf of Carpentaria, for a long time, was considered one of the last strongholds in the world for four out of five sawfish species.

An image of a sawfish with a long nose like a saw
The sawfish is hunted for its saw-like nose.(Supplied: Sharks and Rays Australia)

She thinks the ray species may already be extinct along the east coast of Queensland.

“In Queensland the populations are not doing as well as they should given they have been a protected species for 12 years,” she said.

While sawfish are listed as a ‘do not take’ species under the Fisheries Act 1994, Dr Wueringer said a lack of public education was to blame for dwindling numbers. .

Three researchers lean over a large tub about to release a large sawfish into a river
Dr Barbara Wueringer (front right) about to release a tagged sawfish as part of a research project.(Provided: Barbara Wueringer)

“A lot of times sawfish are caught accidentally and people don’t realize how important it is to release them properly,” she said.

Mr. Lucas said he was delighted to see that his works are attracting the attention of an increasing number of visitors.

“I think I’ve finally made it. I’ve been working on this process for six or seven years now and I think I’ve finally refined it.

“It’s about creating awareness so that we’re not going to kill this incredible species.”

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