Days after a video of several Florida fishermen dragging a live shark went viral worldwide, at least one Florida lawmaker has decided to act to bring justice to animal abusers in the Sunshine State.
One of the men on the boat films 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.
Public outcry over the video has grown in recent days, prompting more than 175,000 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.
State lawmakers have mostly stayed mum on the issue, but one legislator is already pledging she will hold animal abusers accountable for their crimes, promising to push legislation next year to up the ante on the perpetrators and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
State Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, told constituents Monday 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 her constituents on Facebook. The incident took place in Miller's district, and this issue of animal welfare has always been near the top of her agenda.
“I’ll definitely be proposing something,” she told Sunshine State News. “It’s really a testament to how lax the FWC has been over the course of decades that we in Florida are facing these horrible problems.”
Miller is no stranger to legislation fighting for animal rights. The cause, she explained, is one near and dear to her heart, giving a voice to the voiceless and protecting innocent animals that cannot protect themselves.
What Miller was not prepared for, she said, was being somewhat of a “lone ranger” in the fight for animal rights.
“I’ve always been an animal welfare person, so when I got to Tallahassee I found there were not a lot of Republicans putting forth legislation on animal welfare,” she said Thursday.
Still, the freshman legislator vowed to push forward with bills she felt would make a difference on a statewide scale for suffering animals. This year she pushed a proposal to end shark finning, a practice in which fisherman will remove the shark's fins and often throw the fish back in the ocean to die.
The fins are considered a delicacy and are used in soups popular in some Asian cultures.
Miller said she met with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to discuss the bill and was shocked to discover the FWC was not supportive of a bill to end shark finning -- something she considers an indicator of the commission's darker underbelly.
“They were extremely reluctant,” she told SSN. “They said they were about ‘sustainability’ and [didn’t] believe this [was] really a problem.”
The bill that ultimately passed merely increased the penalty for shark finning in Florida. Fishermen still are allowed to “harvest” sharks and remove their fins onshore, though they can only do it in limited numbers now.
As a result of her first-hand negotiations with the FWC, part of Miller’s new proposal will create a top-down audit on the FWC and how the state agency handles animal cruelty issues.
Miller said she would propose a clearer outline on animal cruelty, specifically focusing on marine life and defining which animals would be protected under state law.
The Sarasota Republican lawmaker said she wasn’t hopeful the FWC, which has been charged with investigating the shark dragging incident, would be responsive to any legislation changing the status quo.
“It was very strange to me to sit down and have what I thought was a neutral meeting, but they were driven by special interests,” she said.
In spite of the pushback Miller received from the FWC last year, it’s possible she could find an ally in her quest to thwart animal abusers in Gov. Rick Scott, who decried the shark dragging video earlier as “sickening” and “incredibly disturbing.”
In a letter sent to FWC Board Chairman Brian Yablonski, Scott urged the commission to review the state’s fishing regulations and state statutes to ensure “inhumane acts” were strictly prohibited and if committed, punished.
Yablonski responded, agreeing with Scott’s assessment on the horrific video, saying the FWC was investigating the matter.
“FWC Division of Law Enforcement investigators are working diligently to come to a lawful resolution in this case,” he said. “Florida is a sportsman’s destination and there is no place in Florida for these kinds of callous acts.”
FWC spokesman Rob Klepper told SSN Thursday an investigation into the incident was under way, but refused to provide further details.
The case, he said, could be a lengthy one.
“Every investigation is different,” Klepper said. “Some take a few days, some take a few months. Some investigations take two years. It’s impossible to provide a timeline because there are so many moving parts.”
Some have argued the FWC’s reluctance to get involved in animal cruelty cases stems from the desire not to shut anyone out
“They basically don’t want to set a legal precedent for fishing or harvesting to be a legal cruelty,” said Save the Tarpon founder and chairman Capt. Tom McLaughlin to the Miami Herald.
Miller said she hoped her legislation -- which she hopes to write in the coming months -- would begin a much-needed crackdown on animal abuse in Florida.
“I think with enough downward pressure it will happen,” she said. “ I could put something forward and it’ll get a hearing ... it’s such a lightning-rod issue. We have a pretty good chance of putting something forward.”