Outrage over a video showing a shark being brutally dragged behind a speeding boat continued to mount Thursday, with an online petition demanding action as other troubling posts surfaced.
More than 2,000 people signed a Change.org petition by late Thursday calling for Florida wildlife officials to revoke the men’s fishing licenses and order them to perform community service. Facebook and other online posts also continued to draw hundreds of angry comments, with the latest images showing two of the men pouring beer into the gaping mouth of a protected Goliath grouper, over the gills of a hammerhead shark and shooting what appears to be a tarpon.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has declined to release the men’s names, in keeping with past policy, said spokesman Rob Klepper.
However, local news and online commenters have identified the four as west coast anglers they’ve repeatedly complained about, including Michael Wenzel and Robert Lee “Bo” Benac, whose mother is chairwoman of the Manatee County commission. Neither Wenzel’s father nor Benac’s mother responded to requests for comment.
The men’s video ignited an internet fury earlier this week when they emailed it to Capt. Mark Quartiano, a well-known shark hunter who by his own account has killed thousands of sharks. Quartiano posted it on his public Instagram page, tagging it #sowrong #notcool and notified law enforcement officials.
Quartiano’s followers almost immediately identified the men, including Wenzel who in 2015 was investigated by state and federal officials after posting a series of disturbing pictures that showed him gripping pelicans and a gull. It’s not clear if the others were part of the investigation. Federal law enforcement officials had not yet responded to a records request.
Wildlife officials said the case, closed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January, highlights the difficulty in prosecuting incidents depicted on an online post.
“There are a number of questions that need to be answered: where the incident took place, the species of animal, when the incident took place,” Klepper said. “Some of that information might be available in meta data on images, but some might not be, so those are the layers that our investigators have to work through.”
The agency has a unit solely devoted to pursing internet cases, developed either through its own searches or tips, he said. No surprise the number has risen dramatically in recent years.
Save the Tarpon, an Englewood-based nonprofit, first notified state officials after activist Courtney Martin said she received an anonymous tip. Martin, a firefighter, said the tipster sent her a trove of images, some of which she shared on the group’s Facebook page.
“They’ve been well-known animal abusers for a long time. A ton of animal groups, from no-kill shelters to Save the Tarpon have been after them for years,” she said. “Someone needs to dig into it, why they keep getting away with it, and why are their parents defending them? If I did something like this, my parents would never talk to me again.”
Part of the difficulty stems from reluctance in the fishing community to wade into legal cases that might establish stricter, or confusing, laws about handling fish, said Save the Tarpon founder and chairman Capt. Tom McLaughlin.
“They basically don’t want to set a legal precedent for fishing or harvesting to be a legal cruelty,” he said.
McLaughlin said he also suspects law enforcement administrators are reluctant to prosecute difficult cases they may lose.
“It’s nothing to do with the guys on the water. It’s top down and it becomes very political,” he said.
While he can sympathize with the complexity, McLaughlin said the behavior depicted in the photos and video should not go unpunished, especially since the group appears to flout laws by tagging at least one picture, “FWC’sMostWanted.”
It’s unlikely any of the men will permanently lose their fishing licenses, and may even avoid cruelty charges, he said. However a lesser-known law that prohibits discarding fish and wildlife — and applied to mullet fisherman who sometimes toss out male mullet when harvesting roe — could apply.
“Having dealt with it intimately I recognize the challenges but I also recognize where the system is broke,” he said. “They feed off the fact that nothing bad ever happens.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich