New images that have surfaced in the wake of a troubling video showing a group of Gulf Coast anglers dragging a shark behind a speeding boat prompted Florida wildlife officials Friday to expand their investigation.
The images also led Gov. Rick Scott on Friday to call for a review of state fishing regulations to prevent such behavior.
“The brutality and disrespect shown to this animal is sickening and I am sure that you share in my outrage over these individuals’ heinous acts,” Scott wrote to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The latest video shows a man pouring beer over a hammerhead shark and trying to drink it. A label on the video reads, “Who needs a beer bong.”
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It’s unclear if any laws were broken, FWC spokesman Rob Klepper wrote in an email, but “the lack of respect shown for our precious natural resources shown in this video is disheartening and disturbing, and is not representative of conservation-minded anglers around the world.”
FWC has not released the names of the four men who earlier in the week whipped up an Internet fury when Mark “Mark the Shark” Quartiano, a well-known shark hunter, posted a video the men sent him. In it, they speed along in a boat, laughing and taking pictures of a shark they’ve tied by the tail as it flops and twists in the boat wake. But local news and online commenters have identified two as Michael Wenzel and Robert Lee “Bo” Benac.
Attorney Jon Weiffenbach, who said he is representing the men in the video, declined to comment Friday.
“None of the individuals in the video have been charged criminally and no one has been arrested,” he responded to the Miami Herald. “I am friends with the families of the young men, but have no comment regarding the video in my capacity as an attorney.”
Outrage over the video has spread across the Internet, fueling two Change.org petitions that had collected more than 18,000 signatures by Friday. In the days after Quartiano posted the video, condemning the stunt as #notcool, other images surfaced including a trove received by Save the Tarpon from 2015.
The Gulf Coast nonprofit complained to state wildlife officials, which prompted a federal investigation based on photos showing Wenzel grabbing a pelican and tern. The case was closed in January with no charges filed. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Mark Davis said proving the cases can be difficult.
“All statutes require the government to prove the level of culpability, which varies by statute,” he said in an email. “It is often very hard to prove all of the elements based on one Instagram picture.”
On Friday, Manatee County School District confirmed that both Wenzel and Benac attended Manatee County schools but citing FERPA weren’t able to provide additional information. The other two men in the video, whose names have not been released, also attended Manatee schools.
In 2014, Wenzel was charged with three first-degree misdemeanors and pleaded no contest, according to Manatee County court documents. Adjudication was withheld. Charges included possessing alcohol under the age of 21; having a false I.D.; and carrying a concealed weapon (brass knuckles).
A call to Benac’s cellphone this week by the Bradenton Herald was met with the response, “I have no comment for you.”
Wenzel’s father is Robert Wenzel, the Manatee County planning section manager; Benac’s mother is Betsy Benac, chairwoman of the Manatee County Commission. Neither parent has responded to requests for comment.
Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler confirmed the Wenzels have requested patrols near their home, and the department has been doing that over the last couple of days.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dave Bristow said he did not know of any similar requests from the Benac family.
In response to Scott’s letter, FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski said late Friday the agency was eager to “strengthen regulations” if needed.
“These individuals do not represent the sentiments and conscientious actions of millions of conservation-minded anglers around the world,” he wrote.
Sara Nealeigh is a reporter for the Bradenton Herald.