Warning: This article contains photographs some readers may find distressing.
Two bottlenose dolphins with gunshot or stab wounds were found dead along the Florida coastline last week. The event was not a one-off either: The pair are just a couple of the many dolphins found with human-made injuries in the area in recent years.
Biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission discovered the first dolphin near a beach in Naples late last week, with a fatal wound that appeared to have been caused by a bullet or a sharp object, according to a statement by the NOAA.
Just a few days later, a second dead dolphin was recovered with a bullet in its left side along Pensacola Beach, Florida.
The NOAA says at least 29 other dolphins have washed up in the Southeast US since 2002, often with unusual injuries that appear to be inflicted with a weapon. Four of these incidents have occurred within the past year alone. In May 2019, for example, a dolphin was found dead off Upper Captiva Island with a deep spear wound in its head.
The motive behind the killings is unknown. However, authorities believe the rising number of malicious attacks in the area is linked to people attempting to feed the dolphins, most likely out of naive goodwill. If dolphins start associating people or boats with a meal, they are more likely to have an unfortunate run-in with humans, whether that’s a boat collision or a malicious attack.
“When dolphins are fed, their behavior changes. They lose their natural wariness of people and boats,” Stacey Horstman, a bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator at NOAA, told The New York Times. “The best advice is not to feed them, not to reach out to them. The seemingly innocent act of feeding dolphins can lead to harm and something like this.”
The best bet is to simply avoid any interaction with the animals. If you come across a dead or injured marine mammal, authorities suggest you do not intervene and call trained responders at 1-877-WHALE HELP (877-942-5343)
NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is offering a reward of up to $20,000 for information that leads to a civil penalty or criminal conviction in the cases. Harassing, hunting, killing, and feeding wild dolphins is prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If you find yourself on the wrong end of this law, you can land yourself with $100,000 in fines and up to one year in jail per violation.
In more gruesome cetacean news, over 1,100 dead dolphins – often with heavily injured or mutilated bodies – washed up onto beaches along the French Atlantic coast in early 2019.