Over the past several months, dolphins have washed ashore along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast with bullet wounds, missing jaws and hacked off fins, and US federal officials said they are looking into the mysterious deaths.
The most recent case was of a dolphin found dead off the coast of Mississippi, its lower jaw missing.
Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on Monday that they are asking everyone from beachgoers to fishermen to wildlife agents to be on the lookout for injured or dead dolphins — and any unusual interaction between the mammals and people.
“It’s very sad to think that anyone could do that to any animal,” said Erin Fougeres, a marine mammal scientist for NOAA’s southeast office in Saint Petersburg, Florida. “There have been some obviously intentional cases.”
Fougeres said five dolphins have been found shot. In Louisiana, two were shot last year and one this year.
In Mississippi, three were found shot this year, the most recent one last week, which was first reported by the Sun-Herald newspaper.
Besides the shootings, a dolphin in Alabama was found with a screwdriver stuck in its head over the summer. Another in Alabama had its tail cut off, and that animal survived. Still others were missing fins or had cuts to their bodies.
“I think it is outrageous,” said Moby Solangi, the executive director of Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi. “These animals are very docile, very friendly and they’re very curious. They come close to the boats, so if you’re out there, you’ll see them riding the bows. And their curiosity and friendship brings them so close that they become targets and that’s the unfortunate thing.”
Dolphins are among the species protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violators can be fined up to US$10,000 per violation and sent to prison for a year.
The California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund said it is offering a US$5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whomever harmed the dolphins.
The gruesome discoveries are heartbreaking for gulf coast scientists, who follow the population.
Fougeres said that two months before the 2010 oil spill disaster off the coast of Louisiana, dolphins began stranding themselves and that there were unusually high mortality rates — possibly due to a cold winter that year.
Since then, the spill and another cold winter last year have contributed to several deaths within the Gulf’s dolphin population, experts say.
Investigators have also found discolored teeth and lung infections within some of the dead dolphins.
Since February 2010, experts have tallied more than 700 recorded dolphin deaths.
Experts have also found increased “human interaction” cases, which include dolphins tangled in fishing lines — and the more violent incidents.
Fougeres cautions that some of the dolphin mutilations might have happened after the animal died from natural causes and washed ashore. She said that in the case of the dolphin with the lower jaw missing, someone could have cut off the jaw for a souvenir after the animal died.
“We have to do a necropsy on the animal and collect tissue samples to try to determine whether or not the injury was pre- or post-mortem,” she said.
She also said that the increase in cases might be due to NOAA’s dolphin stranding network becoming better trained to notice cruelty cases or unusual deaths.