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Sharks Attack; Fishermen and Scientists Battle

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For 400 million years, sharks have patrolled the seas around what is now the Sunshine State. As a species, they are twice as ancient as most dinosaurs. Ever since humans appeared 2 million years ago, we have feared them. Sharks were there to devour the bodies of Taíno Indians slain by Christopher Columbus in 1492. And they followed slave ships across the Atlantic, waiting for castaways. In the Pacific, islanders have long considered them gods.

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."

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.

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Michael E. Miller

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