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Sharks Attack; Fishermen and Scientists Battle

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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."

The captain of the ship that appeared in the video, an irascible lifelong Keys shark fisherman named Peter Boehm, says he fired McLaughlin, whom New Times couldn't reach for comment. "The video is a bunch of crap. It's not what I'm about. I run a legitimate business here."

But Boehm, who some scientists criticize for being far too aggressive with sharks, admits the shotgun blasts are typical. "What do you think happens?" he asks. "How is that any different than a slaughterhouse? Do you eat meat? How do you expect us to fish for a living? Animals have to be killed. As far as shooting sharks, there is no other way to really handle them."


The Giant Stride — a white, double-decker, 42-foot dive boat — rumbles along six miles southeast of Islamorada's Bud n' Mary's Marina. In the stern, a slight man with frizzy hair and freckles addresses a gaggle of high school kids. Dressed in matching neon-orange Crocs and University of Miami hat, Neil Hammerschlag smears sunscreen on his pale skin as he speaks about disappearing sharks and the fragile ecosystems where they dwell.

As the boat chugs toward a bright-orange buoy, the students crowd into the stern and a ghostly outline forms in the waters below. For five minutes, a crew member reels in a heavy line until finally the water erupts and a six-and-a-half-foot sandbar shark bursts through the surface as if gasping for air.

Hammerschlag and two other team members swiftly slide the shark onto the boat, where it whips its powerful tail against a crew member's leg. The scientist straddles it like an aquatic cowboy, thrusting his small hands down onto the convulsing creature's head to keep it from turning and attacking. "A sandbar!" he shouts, referring to the species of shark. "Hi-yo!"

He is the nemesis of shark killers such as Boehm and McLaughlin. The founder of UM's R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, Hammerschlag makes it his mission to catch, examine, and tag as many sharks as possible. He and his colleagues not only track the creatures — they recently traced one all the way to New Jersey — but also check levels of mercury and other toxins the sharks have absorbed from atop the food chain.

Hammerschlag goes out tagging twice a week in the Keys. He begins every expedition aboard the Giant Stride with an explanation to ten or so students about why he has devoted his life to saving sharks. It's a sort of prayer before holy shark communion.

"One hundred million sharks are killed every year," he begins today. "That's 270,000 a day. The problem with that is they can't reproduce fast enough to deal with that kind of overfishing... In the last 50 years, 90 percent of the world's sharks have disappeared, mainly to make soup — shark fin soup." His voice is tinged with anger. "It has no taste, no nutritional value. But in China, it's like caviar: a status symbol."

Hammerschlag has loved the torpedo-like predators since he was a child living in South Africa. Born in Johannesburg, he vacationed with his electrical-engineer father and beautician mother in Durban on the western edge of the Indian Ocean. Instead of playing on the beach, Hammerschlag stayed on the dock and watched fishermen slit open the massive sharks they had caught. He was enthralled.

When he was 7, his family moved to Toronto, where Hammerschlag grew up. But he remained fascinated by sharks. At age 15, he persuaded his parents to send him to the Bahamas, where he went on his virgin shark dive.

"I was scared," he admits. "But I was the first one in the water." After attending college in Toronto, Hammerschlag moved to Miami to study marine science at UM. A master's degree quickly became a Ph.D. and then a teaching position. He met his wife, a pretty Swiss blond named Caroline Peyer, on a dive trip. Since they were married two years go, Caroline has become a shark researcher too. The couple plan to name their children for different varieties of the species.

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Michael E. Miller

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