ALONG THE GULF COAST — Over the past several months, dolphins have washed ashore along the northern Gulf Coast with bullet wounds, missing jaws and hacked off fins, and 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 was missing.
Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday they're asking everyone 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 St. Petersburg. "There have been some obviously intentional cases."
Fougeres said five dolphins have been found shot. In Louisiana, two were shot in 2011 and one in 2012. And 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, Miss. "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 protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violators can be fined up to $10,000 per violation and sent to prison for a year.
The California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund said it is offering a $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.
Since February 2010, experts have recorded more than 700 dolphin deaths.