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Why 17 Dolphins Were Shot To Death Off The Gulf Coast

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Dodo Contributor: David Kirby is a freelance writer.

WARNING: Disturbing Images

Dead dolphins, many riddled with bullet holes, are turning up on Gulf Coast beaches in increasing numbers, with few leads as to who is responsible for the killings. The latest victim, a pregnant bottlenose dolphin, has given new urgency to solving the mystery. The female dolphin, who was just weeks away from giving birth, was found dead on Miramar Beach in Choctawhatchee Bay, near Destin, Florida, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"Necropsy results showed the animal was shot on the upper right side, likely with a small caliber firearm," NOAA said in a press release. "The bullet was discovered lodged in the dolphin's lung. It's possible the dolphin may have been shot 1-2 days before it was recovered."

(Photo: Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge)

Officials are also seeking information related to a string of violence committed against dolphins off the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, especially over the past four years. NOAA is seeking information from anyone who may have details on the killing of any dolphin, which is a felony violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"The numbers of violent incidents towards dolphins in the Northern Gulf appear to be increasing," NOAA's press release said. "Since 2002, at least 17 dolphins have stranded with gunshot wounds, with 70 percent of those occurring since 2010."

Even more worrisome, scientists and environmentalists fear that for every dolphin that washes up with bullet holes, an unknown number go undiscovered. 
"Only a fraction of animals that are injured or die at sea eventually strand," Courtney Vail of Whale and Dolphin Conservation told The Dodo. "We have no idea of the total numbers that may be falling victim to this activity. It very well could be the tip of a more insidious iceberg." WDC is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to the identification, arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for harming the dolphins. "In an extreme case of cruelty," Vail added, "one dolphin was found dead with a screwdriver lodged in its head near the Florida-Alabama border in June 2012."

Vail declined to speculate on who shot the pregnant animal - and other dolphins - though suspicion has been cast on local fishermen, who have complained about dolphins competing with them over food. "It's not helpful to assume, because this one incident might be entirely different from the others," Vail said. "We can speculate as to why dolphins might be targeted, including the possibility that fishermen become increasingly aggravated as dolphins hang around their boats to steal bait or catch, often enticed by the discarded fish tossed or released overboard."

(Photo: Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge)

Last year, WDC received reports of dolphins being given poison-laced food from a fishing boat, but it could not substantiate the information. Another possible explanation, according to Vail, is that the dolphins have fallen victim to, "cruel and intentional victims of random vandalism by thoughtless individuals." The spate of shootings is eerily similar to the ongoing sea lion killings in San Diego, where several animals were found with gunshot injuries and had to be euthanized.

"Dolphins and sea lions are often scapegoated as competitors with fisheries, and they pay the price either through deliberate culling or intentional removal through other means," Vail said. Vail praised federal officials for trying to combat the problem. "NOAA is doing all it can, and is taking this very seriously," she said. "They are alarmed at what appears to be a growing trend towards dolphin abuse and vandalism in this specific area." Government officials, and groups such as WDC, are urging members of the public to report any incident of harassment or killing of marine mammals at sea. Boaters who feed wild dolphins, also a violation of the Act, are likely contributing to the killings, however unwittingly. "Dolphins that are fed by people learn to associate people with food and put themselves in dangerous situations when they approach people, boats, and fishing gear looking for food," NOAA said in the press release. "These behaviors have resulted in an increase in human violence towards dolphins, including retaliation by fishermen." WDC, in a written statement, concurred with the government's assessment. "Unfortunately, the byproduct of dolphin habituation to human interaction in the region, including activities to swim with or feed these animals, is resulting in closer proximity and access to wild dolphins," the group said. The shootings, sadly, are just part of the dangers that marine mammals in the Gulf must confront. "Dolphins in the region continue to face impacts from the Gulf oil spill, fishing gear entanglements and habitat loss," WDC said. "WDC is disheartened that they are also subjected to these brutal attacks."

The NOAA Enforcement Hotline is 1-800-853-1964, and tips may be left anonymously.