In South Florida, the commercial shark-fishing industry didn't take off until World War II, when oil from the beasts' livers was used as aircraft lubricant or marketed as vitamin-rich "cod-liver oil." In the decades after the war, fishermen from Miami, Broward, and Palm Beach counties caught bull sharks by the hundreds, often using ten- or 20-mile lines with thousands of hooks.

In the early '80s, Mike Newman was among a legion of young fishermen eager to kill the giant creatures. The son of a submarine engineer, he skipped classes at North Shore High School in West Palm Beach to fish with friends. At the time, the federal government was practically begging fishermen to kill sharks instead of swordfish, which had been heavily overfished.

"The government was pushing shark like crazy," Newman remembers. "They gave out grants. They published shark recipes. All the grocery stores were selling shark steaks. Every bar around here was cooking shark burgers on a grill and serving them with beer."

Hammerschlag injects blood taken from a nurse shark into a tube for lab analysis.
Photo by George Martinez
Hammerschlag injects blood taken from a nurse shark into a tube for lab analysis.
A female sandbar shark chomps on a water hose that allows it to breathe while on deck.
Photo by George Martinez
A female sandbar shark chomps on a water hose that allows it to breathe while on deck.

By his early 20s, Newman had his own boat and was hauling in more than $100,000 per year catching primarily sharks. He began buying fins from friends, drying them in barrels in his garage like beef jerky, and selling them to dealers around the world to be used in shark fin soup. South Florida was shark slaughter central.

Then in 1992, faced with plummeting shark populations, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed pulling the plug on unlimited shark fishing. The same year, Florida banned commercial fishing of most sharks in state waters, forcing fishermen to head at least three miles offshore. Shortly afterward, state officials outlawed using nets to catch sharks. Newman and other shark fishermen protested but lost.

Rather than buy tens of thousands of dollars' worth of new gear for deeper water, he gave up and began helping marine biologists catch and release sharks for scientific studies.

Authorities have been reducing shark quotas ever since, and the few shark fishermen who remain have become increasingly angry with scientists and government officials. Some — like John Miller, a scruffy, young commercial fisherman who pilots the Crusader out of Jupiter — even warn that unless more fishing is allowed, more sharks will mean more attacks.

"They are as thick as I've ever seen 'em in my life," Miller says. "The schools keep doubling in size, moving down the beach, and eating everything in their way. It's getting out of control."

"My name is Mike McLaughlin," a sunburned man in fishing suspenders says as he peers nonchalantly into a shaky camera and smacks chewing gum. "We kill things for a living."

Electric guitar notes wail in the background. The video cuts to brief, spliced images of sharks being aggressively jerked back and forth on a line off the side of the boat. As the music builds to a frenetic punk pace, a sandy, six-foot nurse shark is yanked up from the surface like a dog on a leash. Then McLaughlin aims a shotgun at its head and fires, spraying water and blood five feet into the air.

"Shark World!" the background music shouts.

McLaughlin and another man laugh and joke as they waste at least a dozen nurse, bull, lemon, hammerhead, and sandbar sharks in quick succession, jabbing sharp gaffs through the creatures' mouths or eyes before blasting them with the shotgun.

"Fucking fish," McLaughlin says while aiming his gun at a large bull shark. The camera cuts to a headless shark flopping on the deck.

"Where are you going?" he asks and then answers his own question: "Nowhere."

"This one is for Steve Schafer!" McLaughlin finally yells as he pumps lead into a small shark while invoking the name of a kiteboarder who died in 2010 after a bull shark shredded his legs off Stuart Beach.

The three-minute video appeared on YouTube this past March under the title Shark World XXX but was removed within a couple of days. One outraged commenter said McLaughlin should be fed to the sharks. Other viewers asked if shooting sharks was still legal. "Idiotic lowlifes never change or they wouldn't be capable of this shit in the first place," another wrote on Facebook. "They're still doing it, but now we can't get at them."

Shocked scientists from the University of Miami reported the video and relayed the animal abuse to state and federal investigators.

Lisa Gregg, who handles shark licenses for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says her agency reviewed the tape and determined that although the men's actions might be distasteful, there was no wrongdoing. Investigators concluded the massacre occurred in federal waters, making state bans on harvesting of lemon and sandbar sharks irrelevant.

Gregg adds that "the video was taken from a spy cam [and] was significantly edited for shock value."

As for the shotgun blasts, "I have talked with a few research biologists that have worked on commercial shark vessels, and they said it is common practice, and it is also not illegal," Gregg says. "This was a commercial trip and not wasting an animal's life for no justifiable reason."

Federal authorities from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also investigated and decided there was no crime. "The stuff on the video isn't considered illegal in federal waters," NOAA agent Ken Blackburn says. "What's the best way to dispatch a large number of animals?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm not the one to say what's OK and what's not."

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