NOAA is offering a $20,000 reward in the dolphin cases, while hoping to better educate the public about protecting them.
Who is responsible for killing the dolphins? That’s what authorities in Florida in the United States want to know, as they pursue new cases of intentional shootings while adding some important advice for everyone on how to avoid putting the dolphins at risk.
The beloved dolphins are not endangered or threatened in the U.S., as some species are in other parts of the world, but they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It’s all the more reason why conservation officers and the public alike were dismayed to discover a dead dolphin with a bullet in its left side lying along Pensacola Beach, a popular spot on the Gulf of Mexico on the northwestern side of the Florida peninsula.
That dolphin’s remains were recovered last week by experts with the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, an organization dedicated to rescuing injured wildlife. Then, according to the Office of Law Enforcement of NOAA Fisheries, the same thing happened again though hundreds of miles away.
“Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission discovered a dead dolphin off Naples, Florida late last week,” the NOAA office said in a release. “The animal was fatally wounded from what appeared to be a bullet and/or a sharp object.”
It’s the third such incident in the past year: another dolphin was intentionally killed in May 2019 on Captiva Island, closer to Naples, and that too remains under investigation. The NOAA enforcement office is now offering a reward of up to $20,000 for information that leads to a civil penalty or criminal conviction of those responsible for the dolphin deaths.
One of the saddest parts of the story, though, is that the trust dolphins develop for their human counterparts is what leads to their betrayal. Dolphins are highly intelligent mammals who often welcome friendship with humans, but humans have tended to exploit that trust or even cause unknowing harm for lack of information.
“They are one of the most studied and well-known marine mammals in the wild,” the NOAA office explains. “In addition, they are easy to view in the wild because they live close to shore and are distributed throughout coastal and estuarine waters. But this puts dolphins at increased risk of human-related injuries and death.”
And, as NOAA notes, one of the greatest threats to the dolphins is when they are fed by humans. It’s illegal, and the agency just wrapped up a case in January that resulted in a $1,250 fine, but more important is that it’s irresponsible.
“Biologists believe these cases may stem from humans feeding wild dolphins. Dolphins fed by people learn to associate people and boats with food, which can put them in harmful situations,” the fisheries agency said.
In most cases, that means physical risk to dolphins that approach boats but become entangled in fishing gear or sustain a fatal boat strike. Yet it can also mean that dolphins accustomed to a friendly feeding aren’t wary of humans, and they’re easy targets for the kind of cruelty seen on Pensacola Beach or in Naples.
Most people want to help wild dolphins survive in an increasingly challenging environment, so NOAA is stressing the one simple thing anyone can do to prevent harm to them: don’t feed the dolphins.