It was the third dolphin found dead in the state in less than a year, all stabbed or shot.
Officials said they don’t have reason to believe the killings are connected. What they do know is the dolphins were intentionally harmed while alive.
The first case came up last May, when a dolphin was found off Captiva Island with a fatal puncture wound to the head from a spearlike object. On Jan. 27, a dolphin was discovered along Pensacola Beach, and a necropsy revealed a bullet in its left side. The most recent Naples dolphin case was from Jan. 30, said Stacey Horstman, a bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator at NOAA.
“It’s very hard to think about that being done. The Naples dolphin is particularly horrific based on the nature of the wound — we have not seen something quite like that before,” Horstman told The Washington Post.
The recent deaths, NOAA officials said, were possibly a result of people illegally feeding the dolphins.
When humans feed dolphins, the marine mammals become less wary of people, Horstman said. They start going to boats to take bait or approach humans with a “begging posture.”
In previous cases where dolphin behavior change has led to injuries, she said “thrill seekers” may hurt dolphins that come close to boats, or frustrated fishermen harm ones that take bait or damage gear. She said it appeared that in both the May 2019 and Jan. 30 cases, the dolphins were in a “begging posture” when they were harmed.
“When they’re illegally fed, it creates a domino effect of negative impacts for dolphins,” Horstman said.
Although some of the recent cases seem particularly grisly, officials said they have seen previous ones in which dolphins have been shot with guns, arrows or other spearlike objects.
Since 2002, at least 29 dolphins have been found stranded with such injuries in the southeastern United States, including the most recent cases, according to NOAA Fisheries. Horstman said there are typically just one to two cases each year in the Gulf Coast region combined.
Seeing three cases in Florida alone in less than a year “is a little bit more unusual,” she said.
Federal authorities are offering up to $20,000 for information that leads to civil or criminal penalties against those responsible for the most recent dolphin deaths. The decades-old federal Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits harassing, hunting, killing or feeding wild dolphins, and violations can lead to up to $100,000 in fines and up to a year in jail.
Many people probably don’t know enough about laws protecting marine mammals, said Lincoln O’Barry, campaign coordinator with the Dolphin Project, an advocacy group. “I’d like to think most boaters know, but they don’t,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know the rules of the sea unless there is signage.”
He told The Post that his group plans to offer a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the culprits in the recent deaths.
Horstman said it is important for the public to understand why they shouldn’t feed dolphins.
“The seemingly innocent act of feeding changes its behavior — it’s our bad people behavior that’s changing the dolphins,” she said. “We need people to stop.”