$1,600 reward posted for identities of bowhunters who killed rays
DESTIN, Florida––Wanton cruelty to members of the shark family has again detonated a Florida furor, nine months after video of three Manatee County men dragging a shark behind their boat at high speed led to felony charges against all three.
The latest incident came to light in February, wrote Destin Log reporter Maddie Rowley on March 13, 2018, when local resident Chuck Lawson found 15 to 20 dead cownose rays and some pufferfish “left to rot in the sun on the dock” while walking his dog at Joe’s Bayou, a former steamboat dock now used as a marina.
Why dumped on dock?
“Lawson posted the photos inside a private Facebook group for local fishermen and it’s been shared almost 2,000 times,” recounted Rowley. “Lawson believes that the rays were shot by bowfishers. Others following the Facebook thread suggested they might have been dumped by a boat or caught in a net and then left on the dock.
“A second cownose ray dumping incident was reported by Timothy Mahar at Jewel Melvin Park,” about a mile away, Rowley continued. “Mahar snapped a photo of a pile of dead rays and said that a pile of over 50 dead fish was just out of frame. Destin resident Shane Reynolds, the former host and producer of National Geographic’s show Shane Untamed,” aired in 2011, “was so angered by the photos that he organized a monetary reward for any information leading to the cownose killers.”
The reward fund, Rowley said, “has reached $1,600 across several donors.”
Local company promotes cownose ray killing
Cownose rays, though rarely eaten, are commonly used by bowfishers for target practice. The Florida bag limit is five per person per day.
Despite the evident community outrage over pointless cownose ray-killing reported by Rowley, a company called Destin Inshore Charters owned by husband and wife Chris and Shelby Kirby has for several years promoted recreationally killing cownose rays, boasting on a web site that “all of our recent bow fishing trips have been successful, shooting from about ten to fifteen rays per trip.”
Photos posted to the Destin Inshore Charters social media pages appear to show more dead rays held up by grinning killers, or lying on docks, than were involved in the dumping incidents.
Killing contests based on misinformation
Cownose rays, among the smallest, most innocuous members of the shark family, are harmless to humans, yet are also targeted in killing contests held up and down the Atlantic coast, especially in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Cownose rays came to be targeted with particular venom around Chesapeake Bay after studies led by Julia Baum of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, published in the prestigious journal Science, in both 2003 and 2007 blamed overfishing of larger sharks for the decline of the Chesapeake Bay scallop and oyster industries.
“With fewer sharks around, the species they prey upon — like cownose rays — have increased in numbers, and in turn, hordes of cownose rays dining on bay scallops have wiped the scallops out,” Baum alleged.
But Robert Fisher of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found from examining the contents of cownose rays’ stomachs that while they eat oysters, shellfish are not their main food source.
Dean Grubbs of Florida State University then re-examined Baum’s data, concluding that she had exaggerated both the decline in big sharks and the ability of cownose rays to have any impact on shellfish populations.
The organizations Fish Feel and Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK) in 2015 and 2016 produced and distributed extensive video exposés of the Chesapeake Bay ray killing contests.
The Maryland state legislature responded in April 2017 by adopting a bill “Requiring the [state] Department of Natural Resources to prepare a specified fishery management plan for the cownose ray species by December 31, 2018,” and “prohibiting any person from sponsoring, conducting, or participating in a cownose ray fishing contest in state waters until July 1, 2019.”
Cownose rays are not protected by specific legislation in Florida, but whoever killed and dumped the rays found in Destin appears to have violated section 68B-2.002 of the Florida Administrative Code.
This section requires that “all persons catching or taking but not retaining for use any such marine organism shall immediately release such marine organism at the site of capture,” adding that “No person may unnecessarily harm or destroy such an organism. No such organism may be placed or deposited on any bank, shore, beach, or other place out of the water.”
Felony cases against shark-draggers proceed
While the Destin case remains under investigation, the felony cases against alleged shark-draggers Michael Wenzel, Robert Lee Benac, and Spencer Heintz moved closer to trial at a March 6, 2018 preliminary hearing in Hillsborough County Court, Tampa.
“Attorneys for the three men spoke to Judge Mark Wolfe briefly, setting a disposition for May 1, 2018,” reported Amanda Ciavarri for WFLA-Tampa.
Wenzel, 21, Benac, 28, and Heintz, 23, were all charged in December 2017 with two third degree felony counts each of aggravated animal cruelty for dragging the live blacktip shark, as shown in two videos posted to social media on July 24, 2017.
Wenzel and Benac also face second degree misdemeanor counts of illegally taking a shark.
Australians outraged, too
Altogether, recreational fishers legally kill about 224,000 sharks of all species per year in U.S. waters, but the recent Florida incidents indicate that even as the world shark population appears to be falling by as much as 8% per year, sharks are beginning to gain public sympathy.
Australians responded much as Floridians did to the shark-dragging and Destin cases in mid-February 2018, after park ranger Laeila Gardener found 14 dead sliteye sharks “mutilated and lined up in rows along the rock wall of a popular headland near the Queensland border of New South Wales,” reported Monica O’Shea for Daily Mail Australia.
The location was near the scene of a January 11, 2009 attack by a great white shark on surfer Jonathan “Jono” Beard, then a 31-year-old heavy equipment operator.
Beard, however, returned to surfing, and in a 2015 interview with Ryan Keen and Jack Houghton of Gold Coast Bulletin credited the attack with inspiring him to start his own company, Take A Bite Earthmoving.
But increased sympathy for sharks has not, as yet, extended to other fish.
Hardly anyone raised a voice in protest when, on the same day that the Destin killing of cownose rays made local headlines, the Missouri Department of Conservation, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the St. Louis County parks department jointly boasted of having netted and killed an estimated 47,000 Asian carp who were washed into Creve Cour Lake near St. Louis by flooding about 10 years earlier, and were trapped there when the floodwater receded.
The Asian carp were “crowding out sport fish like crappie,” wrote Matt Campbell of the Kansas City Star. “They were even leaping out of the water and striking people.
“Officials think they were successful in removing about 85% of the carp from the lake,” Campbell continued. “They are not worried about the remaining fish again taking over because Asian carp require flowing waters, like the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, for their eggs to hatch. All the carp rounded up were adults. So the remaining population will eventually die out,” at least in theory.