National Aquarium Celebrates International Sawfish Day

The Alan D. Henningsen Conservation Research Grant will fund sawfish research and conservation efforts

This year on International Sawfish Day, the National Aquarium joins members of the sawfish research and conservation community to honor the late Alan D. Henningsen, a former National Aquarium research specialist and senior aquarist. International Sawfish Day is celebrated every year on October 17 and is organized by the Sawfish Conservation Society (SCS) to bring attention to the elasmobranch's critically endangered conservation status and the threats that it faces.

The goal of International Sawfish Day is to prevent the species' extinction by alerting the public to their critical conservation status, encouraging recreational and commercial fishing communities to release sawfish and record and report sawfish sightings in the wild to allow researchers to zero in on existing populations of these elusive species in the ocean.

The role sawfishes play as top predators is crucial to maintaining balanced coastal ecosystems. Like the largetooth sawfish that call the National Aquarium home, all five species of sawfish (largetooth, smalltooth, green, dwarf and narrow) are endangered or critically endangered. This is primarily due to human impacts, including habitat loss due to the modification of the nearshore habitats young sawfish need to survive, bycatch—unintentional sawfish entanglement in commercial fishing nets—and international trade of sawfishes or their rostrums which, while illegal, is not always well enforced.

Alan D. Henningsen spent 32 years as the National Aquarium's resident sawfish expert and served as a significant figure in the elasmobranch research community. The Alan D. Henningsen Conservation Research Grant, named in his honor, will be granted this October by SCS and the Marine Fishes Taxonomy group at NOAA Fisheries to a researcher pursuing a better understanding of sawfish and the advancement of sawfish conservation efforts. Aquarium staff, many of whom worked with and were mentored by Henningsen, can think of no better way to perpetuate the legacy of this dedicated and respected scientist.

"Alan's enthusiasm for and knowledge of elasmobranchs were an inspiration to our team and other professionals well beyond our building," said National Aquarium Assistant Curator Jennie Janssen. "He managed to keep one hand in elasmobranch research while keeping the other in the husbandry of these animals in zoos and aquariums. Alan's ability to bring those two sometimes separate worlds together is a testament to how loved and respected he was within both."

Before his passing in 2021, Henningsen lent his critical expertise to the evolution of the Aquarium's Shark Alley exhibit and, eventually, to the acquisition of two sawfishes in 2004. He led the ongoing process of training sawfish to cooperatively participate in their routine medical care, which is a skill that builds upon the fact that they're already trained to respond to a specific station within their exhibit for feedings.

On International Sawfish Day and every day, the National Aquarium stands in celebration of the sawfish and remembers its beloved colleague who dedicated his career to the critically endangered elasmobranchs.

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