The trophy shot, from the grainy images that once wallpapered Florida tackle shops to the high-gloss GoPro videos vying for clicks on YouTube, is a tradition in fishing nearly as fetishized as the sport.
There’s even a name for it: fish porn.
But a video that went viral this month showing a group of Gulf Coast men dragging a battered shark behind a speeding boat exposed a subculture that may be taking the term too literally. In their version, a gang of MTV Jackass-like characters talks smack about fishing online and posts images of themselves taking shots at fish with handguns, swilling beer and Jägermeister from the gills of stunned or dead fish, and committing acts that may violate state and federal fishing rules.
The online outrage triggered by the nastiness is now spilling into real life. Conservationists, more enlightened anglers and wildlife agencies tracking a rising tide of violations on social media hope the backlash can curb behavior that is easy to condemn — but difficult to prosecute.
“There are clearly a group of anglers who know it’s illegal,” said David Shiffman, a former University of Miami shark researcher and fellow at Simon Fraser University who this week published a study in the journal Fisheries Research about online posts by land-based shark anglers.
“People knew the activity was illegal and actively discussed ways to avoid getting caught,” he said of the hundreds of posts he studied. “But Cecil the lion was a turning point...and we may start to see a turning point here.”
Over the last few decades, the fishing ethos has largely evolved to catch and release. Fishing tournaments that once called for anglers to haul in dead fish for weighing and measuring now largely rely on photographs and the honor system. Fishing regulations have followed suit, with increased protections for gamefish.
But among this Jackass subset, killing — the coarser the picture the better — remains a practice, increasingly drawing the attention of law enforcement.
In 2006, Florida wildlife managers, who are now investigating the men linked to the video, created a unit devoted to crimes popping up online and expanded it in 2009. Despite a spike in cases, the unit is still small — just one state supervisor oversees 14 investigators across six different regions pursuing internet crimes along with their regular cases.
The agency doesn’t track the number of cases that come into the unit, or how they’re resolved, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Rob Klepper. But previous stings, dubbed Operation Wild Web, highlight the difficulty in chasing internet crimes, he said.
In four different stings in recent years around the state, staged over three to four days, the agency launched a total of 550 investigations, he said. Only 280 resulted in citations or warnings.
“As you can see, the number of investigations initiated by suspicious online activity is close to double the number of cases that officers find sufficient evidence to move forward with,” he said in an email.
Part of the difficulty is finding them. The shark-dragging video only came to light after local shark hunter Mark the Shark Quartiano, often condemned by conservationists for catching and killing sharks rather than releasing them, got messaged a copy by its creators, Michael Wenzel and Robert Lee “Bo” Benac, and posted it.
“I guess they initially sent it to me thinking it was going to be funny. They wanted my reaction or my blessing, which kind of backfired on them,” he said.
Wenzel’s images, including a bathroom selfie of himself dangling a great egret — a bird nearly hunted to extinction and now the symbol for National Audubon — were also shared with another public Facebook page, Doyouevenfishbro, which has 41,000 followers on its Instagram account. While some trophy shots pop up on the account, it draws just as many submissions from people memorializing the stupid side of fishing, with numerous gory images of hooked fingers and gashed legs, men beer-bonging fish, and naked anglers dangling their catches between their legs.
Its creator declined to speak by phone with the Herald because of the “hostility” directed at the page. But said in a direct message critics misunderstand its intent, which is meant to expose the behavior.
“We put people like Michael himself on display to the fishing community in a very vulgar and explicit manner just because we try and get a point over that what they do is illegal,” the message said. “Also our audience is very captivated by the vulgarity which others wouldn’t be. We are avid fishermen and respect our rules and regulations put forth by FWC. But it’s just frustrating that people link us to Wenzel and friends when we actually are the exact opposite.”
Wenzel, whose identity has not been confirmed by authorities, came under investigation by federal and state wildlife investigators in 2015 after he posted images of himself with tarpon in a boat and grabbing protected seabirds.
The case was closed in December after investigators concluded they could not prove when the photographs were taken — an indication that while the internet provides an endless supply of possible crimes, proving them isn’t always easy.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald, who has spent decades prosecuting such crimes, said users are getting savvier about how they use their cellphones, turning off GPS trackers and disabling clocks that log the times of photos. Social platforms may hold that information, but getting it from out-of-state companies can be time-consuming and sap limited manpower.
The strength of the case must also be weighed before charges are filed, he said.
“There are both legal and ethical restraints,” he said. “We’re not internet trolls. We don’t shame people with criminal charges.”
And despite what may look like incontrovertible proof in an image, making a case still often requires a lot of old-fashioned investigative work involving witnesses.
“When there are just a couple of people on a boat, and one little video clip, you may need more information,” he said wryly.
A few years ago, Watts-Fitzgerald prosecuted a case involving a teenager who hooked a protected manatee and posted a video online. The video only showed the rod and reel, the manatee and a corner of the teen’s T-shirt as a voice narrated, he said. The wildlife investigator nailed the case because he knew the reel, a newly released Shimano, was not widely available. He also recognized part of the distinct Bass Pro Shop logo on the teen’s T-shirt. Since there were only two or three stores in South Florida, he started checking and found one with four reels in stock. One was missing. When the manager listened to the video, he recognized the voice of his store clerk.
“A really astute fish and wildlife agent identified where it was and who they were,” Watts-Fitzgerald said. “IT can help, but it’s not a panacea.”
After the shark-dragging video was released, Gov. Rick Scott urged wildlife commissioners to review state fishing rules. Commission Chairman Brian Yablonski has agreed to take a look, although it’s not clear yet if the matter will make the commission’s next meeting in Okeechobee in late September.
But even if regulations change, getting anglers to go along across miles of ocean may still be a big hurdle. In the past, the community has been reluctant to tighten laws, said Capt. Tom McLaughlin, the Save the Tarpon founder who complained about Wenzel to state officials two years ago. Anglers worry about “bringing animal cruelty laws into the legal arena when you’re talking about fishing and hunting.”
In his study of attitudes among land-based shark anglers, Shiffman also found messaging about regulations weren’t being widely received.
Their attitude is “why don’t these ivory-towered idiots know anything or these environmental people know anything,” he said.
Anglers who break fishing rules also generally don’t think their actions do much harm — even though Shiffman found recreational fishing now kills more large sharks in U.S. waters than commercial — and generally think of themselves as conservationists.
They “would probably be horrified by this,” he said. “They care about sharks, they sign conservation petitions. The issue is some of their practices are demonstrably harmful and illegal. But they’re not being cruel to make a joke.”
Of the more than 1,500 sharks Shiffman counted in his study that looked at five years worth of posts from a South Florida online forum, only 5.5 percent mentioned releasing the fish.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
This story was originally published August 17, 2017 7:00 AM.