Two felony charges dropped
TAMPA, Florida––Claiming a lack of evidence sufficient to warrant a continued prosecution, Florida assistant state attorney Andrew Hubbard on May 1, 2018 informed Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe at a preliminary hearing that the state has dropped all charges against Spencer Heintz, 23, who had faced two counts of aggravated cruelty to animals for his alleged part in dragging a blacktip shark behind a speeding boat on June 26, 2017 near Egmont Key in Hillsborough County waters.
Hubbard told Judge Wolfe that the state is proceeding with the prosecutions of co-defendants Michael Wenzel, 21, and Robert Lee “Bo” Benac III, 28, for two felony counts each of aggravated cruelty and a misdemeanor count each of using an illegal method of shark fishing.
Wolfe set a status hearing date for Wenzel and Benac on June 13, 2018.
Dead or alive?
“Paul Sisco, attorney for Heintz, said Heintz could be called as a witness in the case and will cooperate if that happens,” wrote Tampa Bay Times reporter Tony Marrero.
Said Sisco, “Mr. Heintz … has a good recollection of exactly what took place on the boat and intends to help tell the truth fully.”
Added Sisco, “I can tell you that the opinion of Mr. Heintz is that that shark was deceased at the time it was being dragged.”
Summarized Marrero, “The case is expected to hinge on whether the shark was alive or dead,” since a cruelty charge would not apply to an animal who had already been legally killed.
“Another man on the boat that day, 24-year-old Nicholas Burns Easterling, did not face charges, because he provided information and cooperated with the investigation,” said Courthouse News.
Video appalled even professional shark fisher
The major evidence against the defendants is a video that Wenzel posted to social media on July 24, 2017.
The video came to the attention of Florida Wildlife Commission investigators, wrote Carl Teproff of the Miami Herald, after Wenzel “messaged it to Mark ‘The Shark’ Quartiano on his Instagram account, after Quartiano,” who runs a shark fishing business, “was alerted to its existence by a concerned party.”
“According to the arrest affidavit,” Courthouse News said, “Benac caught the shark with hook and line, which is legal, pulled it to the boat, and Wenzel shot it near the gills with a revolver, which is not legal.
“Wenzel shot the shark three more times, the affidavit states, before bringing it on board, tying a rope to its tail and dragging it behind the boat at high speed. Authorities say that at the end of another, longer recording of the incident, Wenzel can be heard saying, ‘I think it’s dead.’”
Florida Wildlife Commission, Mote Marine Research and Florida Atlantic University scientists are expected to testify that the shark’s movements while being dragged indicated that it was still alive for most of the video. The scientists were to provide depositions on May 2, 2018.
“Wenzel and Benac also face a charge each of illegally taking wildlife, a misdemeanor, for using a spear gun and handgun on two other sharks,” Courthouse News said, explaining that “Florida Wildlife Commission regulations only permit catching sharks by hook and line in state waters and do not allow the use of firearms or explosives.”
Heintz’s father is personal injury lawyer Steven Heintz. Wenzel’s father is reportedly a planning manager for Manatee County, Florida. Benac’s mother, Betsy Benac, is a Manatee County commissioner.
73 million sharks per year killed for fins
While the shark-dragging case has repeatedly drawn both the social media and mass media spotlight, Miami has quietly become a hub of the shark fishing industry, Miami Herald reporter Jenny Staletovich revealed, also on May 1, 2018.
The recreational shark fishing industry “helps to pump more than $220 million annually into Florida’s economy and produces about 3,700 jobs,” Staletovich wrote in a previous exposé, but the commercial shark fishing industry, mostly based abroad, is many times larger.
Shark fishers worldwide kill about 73 million sharks per year, according to the nonprofit organization Oceana, founded by actor Ted Danson in 2001.
Shark fin imports rising in Miami
But while shark fins are used to make a soup that is a longtime staple of upscale banquets in much of Asia, despite a movement toward excluding shark fin from wedding dinners, the rest of each shark killed is usually discarded at sea, alive or dead.
“Since 2015,” Staletovich wrote, “Miami has led U.S. ports in the number of shark fins imported from Hong Kong, likely because of an increasing number of import bans in other states. The number of fins arriving at PortMiami from Hong Kong, the historic center of the fin trade, was dwindling between 2010 and 2014. But after California and New York banned imports in 2011 and 2013, fin shipments began rising.”
U.S. banned “finning” but not fin imports
The U.S. banned “finning” in 2010, requiring fishers in U.S. waters to bring all of each shark killed to port. But the U.S. legislation allows shark fins to be imported from places without finning bans, including Malaysia and Hong Kong.
“According to a 2017 Florida International University study that examined 4,800 fins purchased at the busy Hong Kong market between 2014 and 2015, nearly a third came from protected sharks facing extinction,” said Staletovich.
“Two proposed laws now winding through Congress would tighten restrictions,” Staletovich mentioned, “with one bipartisan measure, sponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and Representative Ed Royce (R-California) banning shark fin imports altogether. A second bill drafted by Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Daniel Webster,” both Republicans, “would let U.S. shark fishers continue harvesting fins, but would allow imports only from countries that share the U.S. rules.
No charges yet in March 2017 “finning” bust
“The U.S and about 30 other countries ban finning in part or altogether,” Staletovich said. “But some Asian countries still allow it and international waters remain unregulated.”
The Staletovich exposé followed her March 31, 2017 report about how Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service officers “stopped a shrimper 20 miles north of Key West and discovered dozens of dismembered fins on his boat,” she summarized.
“More than a year later, the case remains open with no charges filed, a spokeswoman for the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said,” Staletovich concluded.