Dolphin Killings in the Gulf of Mexico

By E.M. Fay

Dolphins are under more stress than ever before.  These intelligent, gentle creatures – known for their empathy and for having saved drowning humans and dogs – are being persecuted in many ways and on a large scale.  The mass slaughter of dolphins in Japan, as exposed in the Academy-Award-winning film, The Cove, is a well-known case in point, but there have been other threats to the highly evolved marine mammals.

There is a strange dichotomy regarding humans’ relationship with dolphins.  On one hand, we are fond of them.  From the early television series “Flipper” – which brought widespread attention to dolphins, including the perpetuation of some false perceptions – to aquatic theme parks around the globe that feature performing dolphins, several generations of children and their parents have “oohed” and “aahed” at the antics of the clever, versatile swimmers.  Scientists have studied their speech patterns, sonar-controlled navigational ability, and family life, and pronounced them among the most intelligent beings on earth.

On the other hand, no consideration for dolphin safety is shown by the fishing fleets of the world, as their gigantic nets, meant for catching tuna, cod, and other edible fish, have trapped and killed countless dolphins over the past few decades.  When this problem was brought to the attention of fish-processing corporations, some attempted to appease public opinion by asserting that they are more careful in their netting operations now, adding a symbol to cans of tuna that promises no dolphins were harmed; but this is a dubious reassurance, at best.  Public relations exercises, like advertising, should not be taken at face value.   

Another longstanding threat to dolphins is the continued dumping of toxic chemicals into the oceans.  Pollution of the seas has been a mounting concern since well before the first Earth Day in 1970.  Nowadays, there are also huge mountains of manmade debris in the ocean, floating “islands” of plastic refuse that ensnare wildlife.

Add to this the insatiable demand by the burgeoning human population of the planet for “seafood,” which is wiping out fish stocks in every ocean.  Overfishing is causing starvation amongst many ocean-dependent species, including pelicans, seals, polar bears, whales, and dolphins. 

Competition between humans and other animals for fish has been known to provoke violent reactions.  Fishermen in the Pacific Northwest have admitted to shooting seals who were simply seeking sustenance.  In North Carolina and elsewhere, pelicans have been killed and mutilated, possibly because they were competing with humans for scarce fish supplies.  And there is reason to believe that the recent brutal murders of dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico may be related to their consumption of food that humans want for themselves.  Whether this is the motivation or not, the dolphin killings have shocked and dismayed wildlife advocates, law enforcement officials, and the general public alike.

A number of dolphin corpses have washed up on the coast between Louisiana and Florida, shot to death and in some cases horribly mutilated, including one animal’s jaw having been cut off, probably post-mortem. The heartlessness of the slayings was commented upon by the lead biologist at the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss.

Calling the murders “senseless,” and “repugnant,” the biologist stressed the importance of finding whoever is responsible for them before the birthing season begins in the Gulf, when newborn dolphins and their mothers will be most vulnerable.

The illegality of the killing is undisputed: the Marine Mammal Protection Act authorizes a sentence of one year in prison and a fine up to $100,000 for anyone convicted of killing dolphins.

Wildlife Watch spoke with the gentleman in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration investigation into the crimes, Deputy Special Agent in Charge Jeff Radonski, of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. He works in the Southeast Division, a vast area that stretches from the Texas-Mexico border to the North Carolina-Virginia border and into the Caribbean.

Special Agent Radonski noted the practical difficulties inherent in searching for any perpetrator along the lengthy coastline and into open water.

“This is an ongoing case,” Radonski said. “NOAA has many people active on it, but this is a difficult type of investigation, and we are highly dependent on the public to supply us with information.

“Unlike when human beings are killed, with wildlife we aren’t able to go through their life histories for clues.  We need to have witnesses come forward. We need public input.”

Although he acknowledged the terrible nature of the killings, Radonski was concerned that some news outlets sensationalize the story in a way that does not help NOAA’s efforts. “We don’t have reason to believe this is the work of one person.”

With no reliable way to know the motivation behind the dolphin killings, a certain amount of guesswork is necessary.  There are a lot more people in the gulf doing scientific research since the BP disaster.

“One of our theories is based on what scientists have seen in the area.  Dolphin feeding by humans is prevalent.  People are giving them inappropriate, unhealthy food, such as potato chips. It’s a crime to feed wild dolphins.  They are not doing them any favor, just the opposite.  They are getting them accustomed to people and putting them in more danger. 

“When dolphins get too familiar with people, they often come in close to boats and may get hit by the props.  Dolphins who lose their fear of people don’t keep a safe distance, and often interfere with fishing boats, as well.”

In a couple of cases in the past, charter fishing boat captains have been convicted of shooting at dolphins that approached their boats, or tried to take fish from passengers.

“People don’t understand that a wild dolphin is a very powerful animal,” Radonski said.  “They have ended up getting into boats and doing damage.”

NOAA regularly looks into criminal deaths of marine mammals; some animals are covered under the Endangered Species Act.  We asked Radonski if he had seen an increase in instances of wildlife killings.

“We had a case several years ago where someone was using pipe bombs in the water.  It’s not a brand new problem, but it’s hard to say if it is increasing or how much is just more reporting.”

NOAA agents’ enforcement challenges include seafood fraud cases and illegal imports.

In the dolphin murders, whether it’s a case of deranged “thrill” killing, competition for fish, or something else, if there is to be any chance of finding and stopping the killer or killers, widespread public involvement is essential.

Wildlife Watch joins Deputy Special Agent Radonski in asking that if any member of the public has information, please call the NOAA Law Enforcement Hotline, at 1-800-853-1964.

Read the Marine Mammal Protection Act at
Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins PSA
E.M. Fay is the Assoc. Editor of the C.A.S.H. Courier and the Wildlife Watch Binocular.


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