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Summer of the Shark: An Ecological Fable

Albie hadn't seen a crowd this riled up since the Miami riots back in '16. Then, he'd been a rookie, and had the bad luck of being on patrol when the National Guard rolled in after Hurricane Alma. It hadn't taken much foresight to know the hurricane season would be worse than ever that year, yet the federal response rivaled that of Hurricane Katrina in terms of incompetence. The storm that followed Alma was worse than the hurricane itself. Albie was at the eye of that storm, when the crowd's collective anger boiled over at the sight of soldiers.

He stepped out of his air-conditioned Crown-Vic hybrid, instantly breaking out in a sweat. This could get ugly real fast. Fifteen years on the Miami-Dade force, he knew what Florida humidity could do to an angry mob. He leaned into the car and grabbed his billy club. "This is unit eleven-sixteen," he spoke into his shoulder mic. "Code 40 at Blue Ocean Marina. I'm gonna need backup a-sap."

Albie walked cautiously toward the crowd, looking for its focal point and its weak links. If he wasn't careful, he might become the catalyst to set off this mob, like those National Guardsmen were back in '16. People spilled out across the asphalt parking lot of the marina, looking down on the dock below. He moved through the crowd, listening to the spectators to gauge the sentiment.

"I thought it was illegal to catch them."

"They should make him see what it feels like to be strung up like that."

"Do these people know it's not the seventies anymore?"

Albie finally caught a clear glimpse of what was happening down below.

The dock sagged in the water under the weight of all the people. The crowd filled every square foot of the dock, and more than a few had clambered onto the decks of boats to get a better view. Some yelled, some shook their fists, some even threw empty beer cans and other trash.

A moment's glance told him all he needed to know. Halfway down the quay, the crowd surged back and forth as a small knot of people grappled with each other next to a fishing trawler. He instantly knew why: above the stern of the trawler, the large carcass of a hammerhead shark hung. An iron hook sunk into the flesh of its snout pulled the mouth open in a posture unmistakably that of a photographic trophy. This is definitely gonna get ugly, he swore to himself as he pushed through the crowd with more urgency.

The American people had grown increasingly divided following 9/11 and the Iraq War, but in the end, the politics of war were tame in their divisiveness compared to the politics of environmentalism. Climate change worsened, weather grew more unpredictable, fisheries collapsed, species went extinct, yet still a significant segment of the population clung to the notion that it was all part of a natural cycle. When oil prices crested $500 a barrel, the U.S. found an excuse to go into Iraq a third time.

This time, the polarization didn't remain as civil as it had in the Bush years. People felt powerless as they watched what little environmental progress had been made slip away, and in their desperation, turned to more extreme ways to get the message across. Eco-terrorism went mainstream and was rebranded "eco-activism." Big-box stores mysteriously burned to the ground before their grand openings. Fishing fleets deployed their nets, only to find them ripped to shreds. Vandals spray-painted environmental slogans on the few non-hybrid vehicles still on the roads.

And out of all this, the shark became the symbol of the eco-movement. With the apex predator of the world's oceans all but extinct, marine ecosystems had gone haywire. Populations of some species like rays and jellyfish, previously held in check by sharks, exploded. The effects rippled through the entire ocean's ecosystems, until sushi bars became a thing of the past, and jellyfish poppers could be found on every menu. In the public consciousness, the shark had been transformed from a monster that preyed on people to a victimized creature symbolic of humankind's disregard for the environment, like the whale and the elephant of past environmental movements.

So when Albie saw the hammerhead hanging above the trawler, a chill ran down his back, despite the oppressive heat. He imagined what a peace officer of the 1960s might have felt like coming upon a crowd gathered around a burning cross in someone's front yard: the cold certainty that, no matter what he did to prevent it, someone was going to get hurt.

Albie finally pushed his way to the center of the conflict. "People like you are why the oceans are empty!" A wild-haired youth with a green Eco Shepherds T-shirt shouted into the face of one of the fishermen as they struggled with one another. Albie stuck his billy club between the two men and pushed them apart.

"Get back!" he yelled, shoving the youth back toward a group of other green shirts. "And you, get back on your boat till this crowd clears." He raised his voice even louder. "The rest of you, get off this dock before I start arresting you for trespassing!"

The mob answered with a chorus of boos and jeers. That's okay, he said to himself, boo all you want. Boos I can handle. He knew they wouldn't disperse so easily, but he could sense the mood change from mass outrage to a wait-and-watch attitude. He could work with that: it gave him some breathing room, time for backup to arrive.

He turned his attention to the fishermen and their controversial catch. The carcass had already begun to reek. Even as he spoke to the anglers, his eyes took in all the details. The gash below the hammerhead's eye, and the droplets of blood oozing out that resembled tears. The distended abdomen, suggesting they might have made a bad situation even worse by landing a pregnant female. The bloody boathook lying carelessly on the deck like a murder weapon.

"Okay, geniuses, you mind explaining why you've got an endangered shark hanging here like a prize bonefish? Or should I just go ahead and call in Fish and Wildlife?"

One of the fishermen on the boat crushed a beer can and threw it on the deck. "Call 'em if you want"—he squinted at Albie's nametag—"Officer Albershardt. We got a research permit. We bagged this beast for the University of Miami." He belched and scratched his beer belly, giving Albie a defiant stare.

The green-shirted Eco Shepherd pushed past Albie. "Yeah, research. Like the Japanese whalers that wiped out the fin whale. They claimed they were hunting whales for research purposes also!"

"Listen, you little eco-pinko—" Albie thrust out his billy club to stop the fisherman as he lunged at the protester.

"That's enough. Stay on the boat." He turned to the green-shirted activists. "Get off the dock. Go on up to the parking lot. I'll come get a statement from you in a minute. Move it."

They reluctantly backed off, and the mob crowding the dock began to break up. Albie turned back to the fishermen. "Cut this shark down and get it out of sight. You're gonna incite these people to riot with this thing hanging here. And I don't think you want that, because I'm not going to hold them back all by myself." A couple of the men reluctantly started working the line that held up the hammerhead. Albie stepped aboard. "Let's see this permit."

The man glared at Albie as he took a slip of paper out of his pocket and handed it over, then pulled out another can of beer as Albie unfolded the permit and began reading.

Under Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Rule 68B-44.042 and pursuant to 50 C.F.R. § 678.4, written authorization from the Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service entitles the Principal Permit Holder to harvest (1) great hammerhead shark from the waters of the state of Florida for research purposes.

Albie scanned the rest of the document, looking for any red flags. Amazingly, the permit did indeed allow the taking of a species that had been critically endangered for years. He had learned long ago not to include the terms "government" and "common sense" in the same sentence, but even this surprised him. Not simply that such a permit had been issued, but that it had managed to stay under the radar. Whoever had approved this permit—his eyes found the signature of a Fish and Wildlife commissioner who was about to become a household name—must have known such an act would ignite a firestorm of protest. Albie was no environmentalist, but he wondered what "research purpose" would justify such a permit.

A flurry of activity in the parking lot caught his eye. Several police cruisers and television vans had arrived at the same time. He looked over at the fishermen struggling to lower the shark. They were moving far too slowly to get it down before the TV crews caught them on tape. He shook his head in disgust. The unrest that erupted on this dock was nothing compared to what would break out when people saw one of the world's last great hammerheads hanging from the stern of a fishing trawler on national television.

To Albie, it didn't really matter. He figured the species was already doomed, and one more dead shark wasn't going to make much difference in the scheme of things. What concerned him was the greater effect this incident was going to have on an already divided country. A country in which the true endangered species was the spirit of unity necessary to overcome the challenges facing it.

 

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