A viral video showing a blacktip shark being dragged behind a boat off Florida in July has resulted in criminal charges being brought against three men.
After the video sparked outrage on social media, a four-month investigation ensued that included statements from three shark experts who determined the shark was alive during the incident, according to the Bradenton Herald.
Michael Wenzel, 21, of Palmetto, Robert Lee "Bo" Benac, 28, of Bradenton, and Spencer Heintz, 23, of Palmetto, were charged with two counts of third-degree felonies for aggravated animal cruelty. Additionally, Benac and Wenzel were each charged with one second-degree misdemeanor count of illegal method of take on a shark, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced Tuesday.
"As we've said since this video and other images came to light, these actions have no place in Florida, where we treasure and conserve our natural resources for everyone," said Commission Chairman Bo Rivard. "It is our hope these charges will send a clear message to others that this kind of behavior involving our fish and wildlife will not be tolerated."
Added Andrew H. Warren, State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit: "The State Attorney's Office is committed to holding these men accountable for having engaged in such senseless and unjustifiable animal cruelty."
A third-degree felony in Florida can be punishable with up to five years in prison and a fine up to $5,000.
The three men, and a fourth who was not charged, departed from Wenzel's waterfront home, the Herald reported, citing the affidavit. A blacknose shark was unlawfully taken using a spear gun. Less than two hours later, a 6-foot blacktip shark was caught by hook and line. When it was reeled close to the boat, Wenzel shot the shark with a .38-caliber revolver. The shark struggled to get away.
Wenzel shot at the shark three more times. However, the affidavit noted it's unknown if any of the shots struck the shark.
"After shooting at the shark, all occupants on the vessel erupt with laughter and cheer," the affidavit detailed.
Shortly after, Benac recorded the now viral clip showing Wenzel operating the boat and the shark being dragged across the water at high speeds, according to the affidavit. Heintz can also be seen recording what was a 30-second long video.
At the end of Heintz's video, Wenzel said "I think it's dead," the affidavit states.
Three shark experts agreed that they saw movements indicating the shark was still alive while it was being dragged.
The affidavit said Benac messaged people on Instagram about the video.
"One person told Benac that, 'You had no right to drag it alive.' Benac replied, 'I had every right,'" the affidavit said.
"This type of behavior is not representative of conservation-minded anglers around the world," Robert Klepper of the FWC told the Herald in an email. "The lack of respect and violation of law shown in the video for our natural resources has no place in Florida."
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