Hooked on Death

When clueless tourist meets shameless skipper, it's a good bet there'll be blood on the docks

"I really don't like killing these fish," he continues. "But I am a mercenary. I have high-end clients who want to go out and kill fish, and by God, if I see a big fish, I'm going to kill 'em. I am going to try very hard to please my clients."

A tireless self-promoter, Quartiano has fished out of Miami since 1974 and once worked with Saffan. And like Saffan, he cultivates a loyal cadre of hotel managers and concierges whom he rewards with cash for mentioning his name first when tourists inquire about charters. Among those hotels: the Biltmore in Coral Gables, Mandarin Oriental in Miami, and the Cardozo and Delano hotels on South Beach. (The concierge at the Loews Miami Beach recommended Quartiano and Saffan.)

And Quartiano does reel in big-name clients. Hanging on his office walls, peeking out from scores of toothy shark jaws, are photos of the celebrities who have paid up to $650 for a half-day trip aboard his 50-foot Striker-1: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Will Smith, ex-footballer Dick Butkus, Miami Heat power forward Brian Grant, and the boys from Aerosmith.

Always chumming for business: Mark "the Shark" Quartiano in his fish-themed office (top), hoisting a hammerhead with Capt. Ryan Wallach (middle), and laying out a display of sharks and dolphin (above)
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Always chumming for business: Mark "the Shark" Quartiano in his fish-themed office (top), hoisting a hammerhead with Capt. Ryan Wallach (middle), and laying out a display of sharks and dolphin (above)

Among most other charter-boat captains in South Florida, as well as many recreational anglers, Quartiano is a pariah. When pictures of a bulked-up, often-shirtless Quartiano posing with clients and an array of dead fish appear on the Internet fishing forums, such as the one run by Florida Sportsman magazine, anglers go ballistic with outrage. "Now I'm freakin' livid!" exclaimed one chatroom member, screen name Coldfish, who reacted to a photo posted in February showing Quartiano and several slain sharks. "Ugh. I think I'm gonna be sick."

In a halfhearted defense of his no-mercy fishing philosophy, Quartiano says he provides blood and tissue samples from species such as sailfish to NMFS researchers based at Virginia Key. And indeed biologist Eric Prince confirms that at various times Quartiano has been issued a federal permit to take undersize billfish for studies of the fish's growth cycle. But Prince adds, "Probably less than one percent of what he puts on the dock is for science. Because he kills fish, he lets me use samples."

Long-time angler Joan Vernon, a founding director of the Miami Billfish Tournament, echoes the opinion of many in the charter-boat business when she calls Quartiano "a blemish on the whole fishing community."

Unfazed by the criticism, Quartiano loves it. "Fine with me if they want to make me the pirate, Darth Vader, the bad guy," he says. "That's okay. It's great for business."

With a limited number of officers, and with the number of recreational anglers steadily increasing, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) officials admit that enforcement of size and catch restrictions can be as spotty as a marbled grouper. But people do get busted. Last year FFWCC Ofcr. Alfredo Escanio cited a Haulover captain for possession of two undersize sailfish, but the charges were later dropped on a technicality. (Sailfish must be 63 inches from the tip of the lower jaw to the fork of the tail, and the bag limit is one per angler per day.)

In January the FFWCC enlisted the Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue divers to recover the butchered remains of an undersize sailfish a charter-boat captain had brought into the dock so the client could take its picture. Capt. Joey Gervasi of the Miss Gail was cited and could face a fine of $500.

The operator of a North Miami Beach restaurant, along with the owners of three other eateries in Broward County, were fined by the state in 2000 after admitting they illegally bought sailfish and sold it as tuna.

Quartiano, too, has been caught. In 1995 he paid a $1200 fine after pleading no contest to charges that he sold six sailfish to an undercover officer with the Florida Marine Patrol (now part of the FFWCC) for $570. "It was a classic case of entrapment," he says. "There were guys coming to the dock for three weeks straight asking to buy fish. I made a mistake."

Compared with the damage commercial fleets can inflict on a fishery, recreational anglers hardly seem like mass murderers. Yet as Bouncer Smith insists, every killing counts. "If a single charter boat kills 100 a year, that's an appreciable number to kill," Smith muses. "Then multiply that by ten boats on the dock, and that puts a dent in the scheme of things."

In the first three years of the Miami Billfish Tournament, hundreds of fish were killed. "We gave the meat away to charity, but it bore heavy on our conscience," says Joan Vernon, whose late husband founded Capt. Harry's Fishing Supply, a fixture in downtown Miami since the early Seventies. The tournament was one of the first to institute catch-and-release for competitive fishing in 1986. Since then thousands of sailfish have been let go, and evidence from tagged fish indicates some are caught again.

Yet there are critics -- Quartiano is one -- who argue that many fish die even in catch-and-release tournaments, and even when circle hooks are used, because the fish swallow the hook and suffer from internal injuries and exhaustion after being hauled to the boat. "These people who go after me are hypocrites," says Quartiano. "I see dead sailfish in the water all the time after tournaments."

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