Copped a plea; last alleged participant will go to trial
TAMPA––Florida man Michael Wenzel, 22, who shot a shark in June 2017, then was videotaped exulting as the dying shark was dragged behind a speedboat, will spend five weekends in jail for related offenses, beginning on March 8, 2019, is to pay a fine of $2,500, must perform 100 hours of community service, will be on probation for 11 months, and has had his fishing privileges suspended for five years.
Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe rendered the sentence after Wenzel accepted a plea bargain rather than go to trial.
Third degree felony
Wenzel pleaded guilty, reported Joe Hendricks of the Anna Maria Sun, “to a third-degree felony count of aggravated cruelty to animals. A second and similar third-degree animal cruelty charge was dismissed.”
Wentzel also pleaded guilty to violating Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission rules, Hendricks wrote.
“The misdemeanor charge pertained to the illegal taking of a shark,” Hendricks explained. “Video shows Wenzel using a .38 caliber revolver to shoot the shark. State law prohibits taking a shark by any other means than with a hook and line.”
Suspect Heintz escaped prosecution
Added Nicole Grigg of the WFTS Digital Staff, “Wenzel and Robert Lee Benac, another suspect in the case, both appeared at the Hillsborough County Courthouse,” but Benac, 29, reportedly refused the same plea deal that Wenzel took.
Benac, another Florida man, is now to go to trial on the various charges on June 24, 2019.
A third Florida man involved in the shark dragging incident, Spencer Heintz, 23, escaped prosecution when Florida assistant state attorney Andrew Hubbard on May 1, 2018 informed Judge Wolfe that the state had dropped all charges against him due to a purported lack of evidence.
Fourth suspect not charged
Heintz had faced two counts of aggravated cruelty to animals for his alleged part in dragging the blacktip shark on June 26, 2017 near Egmont Key in Hillsborough County waters.
“Another Florida 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.
The major evidence against the defendants is a video that Wenzel posted to social media on July 24, 2017.
“I think it’s dead”
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.’”
New shark fishing rules
The Wenzel sentencing coincided with the introduction of new shark fishing rules, to take effect on July 1, 2019, governing both fishing from shore and fishing from boats.
Summarized Hendricks, “The new rules require a mandatory free annual permit for shore-based shark fishing for those 16 and older, including those 65 and older who are normally exempt from the fishing license requirement. Those under 16 must meet the permit’s educational requirement, unless they are fishing with an adult who holds a permit.”
“The new rules prohibit chumming,” meaning throwing meat scraps or blood into the water to attract sharks, “while fishing for any species from the beach, and require the immediate release of prohibited shark species caught from shore.
“When fishing either from shore or from a vessel,” Hendricks summarized further, “prohibited shark species must remain in the water; non-offset, non-stainless-steel circle hooks are required to target or harvest sharks when using live or dead natural bait; and shark fishermen must possess and use a device capable of quickly cutting the leader or hook when targeting sharks.”
“More than $220 million annually”
Even as the shark-dragging case repeatedly outraged Floridians and social media denizens, Miami emerged as the hub of the U.S. shark fishing industry, Miami Herald reporter Jenny Staletovich revealed on May 1, 2018.
Recreational shark fishing “helps to pump more than $220 million annually into Florida’s economy and produces about 3,700 jobs,” wrote Staletovich.
But recreational shark fishing is just the visible black tip of the traffic, which mostly serves demand for shark fin soup, a staple of traditional Chinese-style weddings and business banquets.
Miami leads U.S. in shark fin imports
“Since 2015,” Staletovich explained, “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.”
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.