The Manatee County State Attorney’s Office is now investigating a video of Florida fishermen brutally dragging a shark behind their boat at a high speed after the 11-second clip went viral, igniting a firestorm of controversy and outrage worldwide.
The county’s animal abuse unit confirmed it was working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s investigation, which has been underway for several weeks.
“When I look at the pictures, I can’t believe that someone could show such blatant indifference to these remarkable creatures,” Andrew Van Sickle of the county's animal abuse unit told WFLA Thursday. “The true sport fisherman I know respect Mother Nature and operate with some care and concern. Even my seven-year-old daughter thanks each fish she catches before returning it back to the water.”
The short video, which many have speculated was shot in Florida waters, shows the shark flailing furiously as it's dragged at high speed behind the powerboat, presumably to its death.
No state agency has publicly identified the men, but social media users were quick to figure out who, exactly, was behind the disturbing video.
Two Manatee County men -- Michael Wenzel and Robert Lee "Bo" Benac -- are said to have posted a video of the incident on social media.
One of the men on the boat filmed the incident on his smartphone; all of the young fishermen seem amused as the shark is repeatedly catapulted into the air, crashing down on the water over and over again while the boat’s engine continues to roar.
More photos of apparent animal abuse surfaced, showing the men and their friends shooting hammerhead sharks, posing with dead pelicans and funneling beer into fishes’ mouths -- and prompting the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to expand their investigation
Van Sickle said it was highly possible the photos and videos violated state laws, but was less certain whether the State Attorney would be able to press charges.
“The photographs, if proven, demonstrate several violations,” Van Sickle. “For example, possession of a Goliath grouper, tarpon, etc. Whether we are able to charge the crimes is still under investigation.”
Still, Van Sickle said, it was evident the fishermen had wronged the environment and the animals who call Florida waters their home.
“Regardless of whether we are able to criminally charge the individuals involved in the incident(s), the pictures and videos prove how much damage one person can do to our natural resources,” said Van Sickle.
Public outcry over the video has grown in recent days, prompting nearly 250,000 people to sign a Change.org petition demanding the men in the video perform community service hours, receive jail time for the act of brutality against the shark and lose their license to fish.
The group responsible for the petition is also considering holding a protest demanding the FWC charge the fishermen for their alleged crimes.
State lawmakers are also wading into the controversy.
State Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, told constituents last week she found the shark-dragging incident “unfortunate,” and vowed to fight back.
“If current law ... does not find this to be a prosecutable crime, I will present a bill this session that brings more clarity,” Miller promised on Facebook.
The incident took place in Miller's district, and the issue of animal welfare has always been near the top of her agenda.
Van Sickle said the FWC and the Manatee State Attorney's Office's investigations were ongoing.
"These investigations are complex, and both the FWC and the State Attorney's Office appreciate the public's understanding and patience," Van Sickle said. "We take these incidents seriously, and this investigation is moving forward."