Sharks attack, fishermen and scientists battle
Mike McLaughlin introduces his shark-hunting video and then shoots and skewers the bad boys.
The sun hangs low over the ocean as Anthony Segrich prepares for the last dive of the day. The boyishly handsome, 33-year-old Delray Beach tech consultant tugs at his camouflage wetsuit and shoulders his scuba tank. Somewhere in the depths below the small dive boat, a school of cobia swirls around an old shipwreck like glitter in a snow globe. Above, the surface is calm, the weather good. Before submerging, Segrich catches sight of Riviera Beach's swanky hotels two miles in the distance. Then he slips into the blue-green abyss, spear gun in hand.
A small scooter pulls him down toward the wreck. After circling the algae-encrusted tower for a few minutes, he closes in on a cobia, aims, and fires. The spear sails through the three-foot-long fish, sending blood swirling in all directions. Segrich doubles back toward the boat to unload his catch, which is still struggling. At 60 feet below the surface, he pauses to pull out a float bag for his prey.
Suddenly the injured cobia bolts past him, trailing the line. Just behind it: a seven-foot bull shark.
Segrich has seen dozens like it throughout the day: inky shadows circling, waiting for wounded fish. But this one is too close for comfort.
A second shark strikes without warning — a 12-foot, 400-pound missile. At the last instant, Segrich catches sight of its gaping, basketball-size mouth headed straight for his left thigh. But before the creature can bury its serrated teeth into him, he shoves its head away with his left hand. Instead, the shark chomps down on Segrich's calf.
While the diver thrashes, the bull shark opens its mouth and bites again, tearing off a football-size chunk of flesh. Then it backs off, as if savoring the taste. Blood clouds the water, and Segrich reaches down to pull together what's left of his torn calf. He covers the wound with an elastic hip pouch and motors frantically toward two mates who are swimming nearby. The shark charges, but Segrich's friend thrusts a scooter in its face. The beast retreats.
Segrich screams when his fellow divers haul him onto the deck of the boat. Blood gushes from the wound until his friends use a plastic zip tie as a tourniquet. When someone dials 911, Segrich mumbles that his blood type is O-negative. The boat races toward shore.
Shark World XXX video. (Warning: graphic content.)
Long before that shark attack, Mike Newman, another kind of mariner, stood on Jupiter Beach, staring at the sea. A winter storm front had just moved through, leaving the Atlantic as calm as a sheet of glass. But 25 feet down, the water was churning with sharp, triangular fins.
It's slaughter time, he thought.
Newman raced to the marina, boarded his boat the Sea Pig, and roared onto the open sea. Newman, a tall, cocky then-21-year-old with a taste for trucks and Corona beer, gripped the wheel with callused hands. Shirtless but dressed in bright-orange fishing pants and boots, he howled with joy while gunning the 26-foot vessel past the massive school of spinner sharks. Two buddies dropped 2,000 feet of gill net over the side.
Within minutes, the sharks were surrounded. The frenzied fish doubled back but were trapped between the beach and Newman's netting.
A wall of water a half-mile long exploded upward as the sharks hit the net at 30 mph. Newman grabbed his .44 magnum revolver from the cabin and began loading bullets. Then the three men hauled the net onto the boat. Newman cut the webbing to let the first spinner flop onto the deck. As the five-foot monster writhed, the fisherman cocked his gun, aimed at the back of the creature's head, and fired a single slug into the thick cartilage. The fish shuddered and then went limp.
As the other fishermen hauled the next shark onboard, Newman plunged a 12-inch knife into the first spinner, slicing off its head, tail, and fins with a butcher's precision. He saved the "plug" of meat for the market, tossed the fins into a basket on top of the cabin to dry, and deposited the head near the bow — it was the first of the day's nearly 200 grisly trophies.
"I used to love murdering the fuckers," Newman recalls of that day two decades ago. "Hell, we'd shoot spinners just for fun."
Still home to roughly two-thirds of the registered commercial shark fishermen in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, Florida is the stubborn heart of the U.S.'s dying commercial shark-fishing industry. But as state and federal regulations on shark hunting have grown stricter over the past 20 years, most fishermen have given up stalking the predators. The number of commercial shark hunters in Florida has shrunk from several thousand to barely a hundred.
So as the hot weather and Florida beach season begin, sharks are on the rebound. Attacks like the one on Anthony Segrich might well follow.
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 riffs 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."
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 blonde named Caroline Peyer, on a dive trip. Since they were married two years go, Caroline has become a shark researcher too. The couple plans to name their children for different varieties of the species.
Hammerschlag has made headlines around the world for his research on sharks. In 2009, he published a paper about the hunting strategies of great whites. While watching sharks devour Cape fur seals, he realized the attacks weren't as random as commonly thought. Instead, older sharks acted like underwater assassins, learning the best hiding spots and carefully positioning themselves deep enough to develop the speed necessary to hit the surface and catch unsuspecting seals.
Last year Hammerschlag hosted a "Summit at Sea" for celebrities including Sir Richard Branson. Also in 2010, he received death threats after defending the bull sharks that devoured 38-year-old Stephen Schafer while kiteboarding near Stuart. Though there were 11-inch chunks torn from Schafer's thighs and buttocks, Hammerschlag told newspapers that "deadly shark attacks are very rare" and the fish "usually don't bite people unless provoked."
"I wince every time there is an attack," he says now. "It's never good, for sharks or for people."
Hammerschlag's efforts to protect sharks have also made him enemies among local shark fishermen, including Boehm. Last year the shark hunter unexpectedly phoned Hammerschlag to say he had found a shark tag belonging to the scientist. Then Boehm asked him how much he would pay for it, Hammerschlag says.
When Hammerschlag hesitated, Boehm hung up, but not without delivering a warning first: "I'm going to throw the tag up in the air and shoot it."
That was before the shark snuff video surfaced. Now Hammerschlag is incensed.
"I don't want to start a war against commercial shark fishermen," he says. "But the guy on the video is proud of himself. It doesn't look like they are doing this to make a living. They aren't just following orders. They are clearly getting enjoyment out of seeing these animals in distress."
Hammerschlag doesn't apologize for his affinity for sharks. Rather, his eyes light up when he's asked about his latest research. Great white sharks' teeth are loosely set in their jaws, he explains intently. They have their own nerves and blood supply, "almost like fingertips.
"They can splay them out like a cat's claws," Hammerschlag says, "and use them to gather information about objects."
Sometimes that object is a person, he admits. But even among notoriously deadly great whites, more than 90 percent of attacks aren't fatal.
"I've seen thousands of attacks on seals," Hammerschlag says. "They are brief, vertical attacks... Within seconds there is nothing left. If a white shark wanted to eat you, it could. There's nothing easier than catching a 150-pound monkey swimming in the water," he adds wryly. "They are two-ton killing machines. But there are people who have been quote-unquote attacked by a great white, with their head in its jaws, and had nothing to show for it but a couple of stitches.
"What does that tell you?" he asks. "They didn't survive because of their bravery. That was the shark's decision."
Anthony Segrich isn't so sympathetic. Since his run-in with the shark April 26, he has spent the past month in a tiny corner room at St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach. For hours every day, he cradles what looks like a small lunch cooler. A fine tube of blood runs from the contraption to Segrich's swollen, cast-covered leg.
"It's my wound vac," the Luke Wilson look-alike says with a hint of pride. "I call it my chum bucket. It's what they use in Iraq and Afghanistan nowadays to rebuild muscle tissue."
Like a war veteran, Segrich will likely be haunted by the attack for years to come. But for now, he seems strangely well-adjusted for someone who lost half his blood — and nearly his leg — by the time he arrived at the hospital. "I don't know if you're squeamish," he adds, taking out his iPhone, "but I pretty much filmed the whole thing."
Segrich shows video of the 13-inch bite marks on his left leg and the cavernous hole where his calf used to be. "It was pretty chunky at first," he says. That was before three operations, 126 stitches, and a skin graft.
Then he pulls up underwater footage a friend shot while spearfishing with Segrich. A loaded spear gun looms in the foreground. Just ahead of Segrich, a cluster of cobia shifts back and forth in the ocean current. And in the background: the unmistakable silhouettes of a half-dozen sharks, patiently circling, waiting for blood.
Segrich's shark attack is one of just a handful so far this year in Florida; none has been fatal. Last year there were 13 attacks; the only deadly one was the incident involving the kiteboarder killed off Stuart Beach. But like many shark fishermen, Segrich says he has seen more sharks this year than ever before.
"The seasonal closures give them a chance to rebound and breed more," he says. "The season is shorter and shorter, and you're allowed to take fewer and fewer sharks. Their population is definitely rebounding. I'd like to see more shark fishing. There's definitely more of them, and they're definitely more aggressive. When those alpha males don't get taken out, they get more aggressive."
John Miller, the Jupiter fisherman who's been hunting sharks for nearly a decade, agrees. Because of restrictions that took effect this year, he's allowed to fish them only beginning July 17, when the Atlantic shark season opens. Last year the date was January 1. Catch limits are strict. Miller blames scientists for the shorter season. "We're the ones who really see what's going on," he insists. "There ain't no shortage, I can tell you that much."
Not nearly as much shark meat is sold today as in the past, but the fins have become more popular. They routinely fetch $50 a pound — more than 50 times the value of shark meat. Rarer kinds can command $500 for the same amount. Although most of the fins make their way to Hong Kong, a half-dozen restaurants in Miami still serve shark fin soup. A few states, including Hawaii, California, Washington, and Oregon, have moved to ban shark fins altogether.
Segrich believes the restrictions on shark fishing need to be lifted. "I'm not sure the scientists know what's a healthy shark population," he contends. He also insists he won't stop spearfishing. And although he won't go Shark World XXX on the ocean creatures, he will be quicker to pull the trigger when he spots a shark.
"If I see one swimming around with a bit of wetsuit in its mouth," he warns, "that one's got a bull's-eye on its back."
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