Reports of dead dolphins washing ashore with gun-shot wounds in the Gulf region were scattered throughout the media in 2012, suggesting that a more recent and disturbing trend of targeted vandalism might be surfacing. Compounding these concerns was the fear that these carcasses, washing ashore in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, might just represent only a fraction of the many possible incidences of such lethal interactions documented by investigators when bodies can be retrieved and necropsied.
In response to this horrifying spate of dolphin deaths over the period of just a few months, WDC established a standing reward for information leading to the identification, arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for these illegal and cruel acts. These funds are meant to assist ongoing and longer term efforts to prosecute these and other violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and support the continuing need for long-term vigilance from the public to come forward with information to support law enforcement efforts.
In early December, an Alabama man pleaded guilty in a federal court in Mississippi to intentionally and knowingly shooting a dolphin with a shotgun while shrimping in July or August of 2012. A sentencing hearing is set for February 24, where the maximum penalty is one year of imprisonment and a $100,000 fine. The Marine Mammal Protection Act is a federal law which makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or to attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, any marine mammal in waters under the jurisdiction of the United States. The Act protects all species of dolphins, as well as other marine mammals such as whales and seals.
There is every reason that we should take these crimes seriously. Between 2002 and 2012, NMFS has documented a total of 12 cases of dead dolphins with evidence of gunshot wounds, revealing the growing threat of dolphins being targeted. 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, feeding on by-catch that is tossed overboard. Dolphins often depredate commercial and recreational fishing lines, and may become a target, especially in times of economic hardship. Or it might be that dolphins are the cruel and intentional victims of random vandalism by thoughtless individuals. WDC received reports last year that dolphins were intentionally being fed toxic substances from a fishing vessel, but could not substantiate this information. In an extreme case of cruelty, one dolphin was found dead with a screwdriver lodged in its head near the Florida-Alabama border in June 2012.
WDC supports the efforts to investigate and prosecute these depraved crimes, and applauds the collaborative efforts of the Justice Department, NOAA Law Enforcement, Alabama Marine Police, and others that worked hard to document and prosecute this most recent case. NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is actively investigating a number of other possible dolphin shootings along the northern Gulf Coast since 2012.
Dolphins in the region continue to face impacts from the Gulf oil spill, fishing gear entanglements, and habitat loss. WDC is horrified that they are also subjected to these brutal attacks, and continues to seek information from anyone who may have details pertaining to these incidents, including any photos or video.
Anyone possessing information relating to such an incident is requested to contact NOAA Office of Law Enforcement at 1-800-853-1964 or a state wildlife law enforcement agency. Individuals can leave anonymous tips or identify themselves when providing their reports on the incident.