Outrage grows as videos expose cruelty to sharks

A man in a red cap and sunglasses leans over the side of a boat, points a handgun at a hammerhead shark struggling on a line and fires two shots into its gills. As blood pours from the writhing shark and two other men watch, he leans back and grins.

The brief video surfaced just weeks after a video of a shark being dragged behind a speeding powerboat as the men on the boat laugh and joke, and it’s led to a fresh round of public outrage — and an investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“Anyone that watched either of those videos would agree that these were acts that went beyond harvesting a shark,” said state Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, whose district is near the suspected location of the dragging incident, in a text to the Sun-Sentinel.

“They were intentionally mistreating and torturing these animals for entertainment purposes and the law should be enforced under statute 828.12 (cruelty to animals).”

The two incidents may be linked. The Bradenton Herald reported Friday that the man who shot the shark appeared to be wearing the same Make America Great Again hat and long-sleeved gray shirt as a since-deleted and Facebook photo of Alex Kompothecras, star of ’s reality show “Siesta Key,” posing with a dead hammerhead shark.

Kompothecras is friends with Michael Wenzel, a Palmetto man identified in press reports as one of three men on a speeding boat that dragged a shark through the water.

In an interview published Thursday in People magazine, Kompothecras said he has received hate mail and death threats over the dragging incident, even though he said he wasn’t there. “Michael has been calling me but I haven’t responded to him because I’m personally offended,” he said.

But he acknowledged deleting a video from his Instagram account of a man shooting a shark in the in the water, along with other images of himself standing near deer and alligators he had legally killed while hunting.

“There are images of me and I feel horrible,” he told People, although the magazine did not make clear whether that included the man shooting the shark. “I am embarrassed and it won’t happen again.”

It’s illegal in Florida waters to use a firearm to kill a shark or any other fish. It is not illegal in federal waters, and it’s unclear where the incident took place. But the shooting inspired more anger over what appeared to be acts of pointless cruelty.

Rep. Miller is considering introducing a bill to tighten the law and clarify the state wildlife commission’s responsibility to investigate animal cruelty, in addition to its usual cases of hunting and fishing violations.

“They have a responsibility to Floridians to monitor and actively pursue marine life animal abusers,” she said. “If the statutes are not currently clear on both what constitutes marine animal abuse, and the organizations responsibility in enforcing those regs, then I hope they will be by the end of next session.

“My guess is there are many other disturbing videos out there and this is just the beginning of the story.”

Robert Klepper, spokesman for the wildlife agency, acknowledged that it doesn’t often handle animal cruelty cases. Among the typical shark-fishing violations, he said, are possession of protected species, catching undersized sharks or more of certain species than are allowed, using illegal bait or illegal methods of catching them, improper gear or fishing in restricted waters.

But the agency’s chairman, Brian Yablonski, had issued a statement saying he was “disgusted” by the “callous acts” in the video, and Klepper said the agency was working hard to solve the cases involved in the videos.

“It is too early to speculate as to what violations took place in the two incidents you refer to,” he said. “However, the FWC would like to state that that the lack of respect shown for our precious natural resources shown in video of individuals dragging the shark is disheartening and disturbing, and is not representative of conservation-minded anglers around the world.”

The outrage that greeted these shark attack videos would have been unlikely in the late 1970s, when the movie “Jaws” scared people away from the beach and shark fishing tournaments became popular. Although today sharks retain an aura of menace, they have gained a following as shark conservation has started to gain attention as a wildlife conservation cause.

“People are much more ready to help an elephant than a shark,” said John Baker, managing director-programs for the conservation group WildAid, which runs a campaign to save sharks from overfishing. “Having said that, I think there’s been a lot of change recently, especially younger people, more understanding of sharks, more secure with regard to their role in the ecosystem.

“Even though a few people every year are killed by sharks, it’s a very low number and they are not deserving of the vitriol and menacing perception that people have of them.”

Last year there were 56 unprovoked shark attacks in the United States, with no fatalities, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. As usual, Florida had the most, with 35.

The wildlife commission and Manatee County State Attorney’s Office released a joint statement late Friday afternoon thanking the public for the leads that have come in and promising a vigorous investigation.

“We share your concern, and we are committed to conserving Florida’s natural resources,” the statement said. “FWC law enforcement investigators and State Attorneys are diligently working toward a swift and lawful resolution to this case.

“These investigations are complex, and both the FWC and the State Attorney’s Office appreciate the public’s understanding and patience. We take these incidents seriously, and this investigation is moving forward.”

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