Dead Meat

In one of the photos that charter-fishing captain Mark Quartiano distributed two weeks ago publicizing his latest catch, he is sprawled across a heap of very large dead sharks. He grins lasciviously at the camera and splays his legs while one hand caresses a fin and the other holds a shark's mouth agape. The tableau is reminiscent of an orgy at a sleazy porno shoot -- Quartiano indulging his bloodlust a little too literally. Adding to the aura of obscenity is the fact that among the dead is one species of shark so rare it is federally protected. Quartiano knows this but simply doesn't care.

Amid the carnival of excess that relentlessly threatens to swamp South Florida in its tawdriness and gluttony, Quartiano serves as ringmaster. Having dubbed himself "Mark the Shark" (complete with registered trademark), he embraces all that is repugnant in South Florida's tourist-based charter-fishing industry, which has helped push our offshore fishery to the edge of crisis.

Speaking by phone from his boat, Quartiano scoffs at the suggestion he took the big shark illegally. "You're wrong!" he bellows. "Call me back when you get your facts straight." Click.

Quartiano is a crazed self-promotion machine, spewing a continual torrent of blathering prose from his Website, newsletter, and so-called press releases boasting of the carnage he inflicts on local marine life. A Website boast: "Charter Legend, Captain 'Mark The Shark'® has been credited for capturing more sharks on rod and reel than any human being on the planet!" In his world, everything is "monster" size -- monster sharks, monster fishing, monster catches, and he is the monster killer.

His hubris has paid off. He's hoodwinked all manner of media into hyping his sea-life butchery. The Discovery Channel, network news, MTV, the Dating Show, and former Miami Herald funnyman Dave Barry have all used him as bait to hook our attention-deficit brains and keep us from flipping the channel or turning the page. In turn this has lured celebrities onto the deck of his 50-foot Hatteras -- actor Will Smith, America's Most Wanted host John Walsh, Aerosmith's Joey Kramer, a pack of Atlanta Falcons players in town for the Super Bowl, and more. Quartiano has successfully packaged an illusion of angling that has nothing to do with nature and everything to do with bloody spectacle. (See "Hooked on Death," Miami New Times, April 11, 2002.)

Not surprising, his disgusting approach to making a living from the sea has earned him a reputation as oily and rank as a chum line. In 2003 WSVN-TV (Channel 7) sailed off with Quartiano to shoot one of those mindless-fluff segments with weathergirl Jackie Johnson. After airing a promo for the piece, however, the station received hundreds of calls and e-mails from viewers complaining that Quartiano was scum at the bottom of the bait barrel. "In all my years in the business, I've never seen a reaction like this," Alice Jacobs, WSVN's vice president for news, told New Times Broward-Palm Beach. "There was an outcry from our viewers that Mark the Shark was an unethical sportfisherman." The station canceled the segment.

That outcry isn't solely a response to his macho beer-and-babes marketing style, but also to his notorious practice of slaughtering depleted and endangered fish and defying state and federal laws meant to protect them. At a time when conscientious sport anglers promote the catch-and-release ethic (especially for billfish) as the only hope for the future of our overfished waters, Quartiano's response, cynically displayed on a menacing skull-and-crossbones Website banner, is this: "Fillet and release."

Last year state officials cited him for not having a license to operate his charter boat, but prosecutors dropped the charge. In 1995 Quartiano was snagged selling six sailfish to an undercover Florida Marine Patrol officer in two separate transactions. Although sailfish can be caught recreationally, they cannot be bought or sold. Most true sportsmen release sailfish, which are not considered edible. Quartiano claimed he'd never before sold sailfish and was in a vulnerable situation after the clients who caught the fish refused to pay his full $500 fee. "I feel I was definitely entrapped," he whined to the Herald. "We haven't sold any [sailfish] ever, except to one overzealous Marine Patrol guy." He pleaded guilty and ended up paying a $6600 federal fine and performing 100 hours of community service.

Neither penalty made much of an impression on Quartiano. Last week he merrily circulated his self-proclaimed press release touting his slaughter of a 668-pound, federally protected bigeye thresher shark, along with a hammerhead shark and what appears to be a blue shark. Several species of hammerhead have been recommended for protection status by conservation groups because their numbers have dwindled dramatically.

"First ever grand slam of Killer Sharks caught off Miami Beach by Mark the Shark!" shouts the prose that accompanies the photos. Never mind that these are deep-water sharks and don't come into contact with humans unless we go looking for them. "These are not sharks regularly implicated in any interaction with humans," says Sonja Fordham, international fish conservation program manager at the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C.

I forwarded Quartiano's pictures to Fordham, who in turn took them to biologist colleagues. "I conferred with several people and it's definitely a bigeye thresher. You can tell from the grooves in the head, the big eyes, the coloration, and the shape of the tail," Fordham reports. "He's breaking the rules."

The rules, in this case, being the National Marine Fisheries Service "highly migratory species management plan," which prohibits killing this shark or possessing it after its death. If a bigeye thresher is inadvertently hooked at sea, the angler must not take it out of the water and must release it with a "minimum of injury." Penalties include fines and possible revocation of a captain's commercial charter permit.

Those prohibitions apply only to bigeye threshers caught in federal waters, which on Florida's east coast begin three miles from the beach. Quartiano claims he was only two miles off Miami Beach when he hooked the shark. Experts I spoke to were skeptical, saying the thresher is a deep-water animal, particularly one this big, and in all likelihood would only be caught far beyond the three-mile limit.

It doesn't matter. This is not about arbitrary lines in the water. It's about having the common sense not to kill animals whose numbers are dwindling, especially for nothing more than mounting as a trophy (it would be illegal for Quartiano to sell the meat). I made sure Marine Fisheries law-enforcement officials received the photo of Mark the Shark posing with the thresher. "We're aware of potential violations this individual may have committed," responds Mark Oswell cryptically when asked for comment. Oswell, national spokesman for the law-enforcement division of the fisheries service, will neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.

"If this is his livelihood," says the Ocean Conservancy's Fordham, "he should be aware of these rules." Regarding the dead hammerhead in the photo, she adds, "I can't tell exactly what kind of hammerhead it is, but there are two or three hammerhead species in this region that the World Conservation Union has proposed to classify as endangered due to evidence of their depletion. So you have him sitting on one prohibited species and one proposed endangered species. It's discouraging to see this at a time when all types of fishermen are waking up to the fact that sharks are really more vulnerable than other marine animals and are being seriously overfished."

Quartiano is a pariah not only to conservationists and regulators but also within the sportfishing world. "I'm at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum [from Quartiano]," says Miami Beach charter-boat captain Bouncer Smith. "Whether [the bigeye thresher] was protected or not, I wouldn't kill it. We don't kill a fish to hang it on a scale. The only time we kill a fish is when the client adamantly wants to eat it. We're in tune with the future of fisheries."

Endangered fisheries are also of great concern to Ellen Peel, president of the Billfish Foundation in Fort Lauderdale. The foundation and its members preach and practice catch-and-release for billfish, sailfish in particular. Quartiano's Website, under his "fillet and release" banner, is a veritable necropolis of sailfish, which drives Peel nuts. "It is a pathetic self-commentary for one who makes a living on the ocean and its creatures to recklessly destroy that upon which he depends," Peel says with barely contained restraint. "Maybe it screams a need for attention. Most charter-boat captains are more protective of their resources."

When it comes to monsters of the deep, Quartiano's insatiable greed and ego are far, far scarier than the sharks he stalks.

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten