National Geographic Daily News
A shot bottlenose dolphin in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

A bottlenose dolphin found shot dead in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on November 9, 2012.

Photograph from Institute for Marine Mammal Studies/Reuters

Rena Silverman

for National Geographic News

Published March 29, 2013

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

When Louisiana Fisheries and Wildlife personnel discovered a dead bottlenose dolphin near Elmer's Island late last year, they figured it was another victim of the 2010 BPf oil spill.

So they were shocked when an onsite necropsy showed no signs of oil-related injury, or of bacterial infection, biotoxins, or disease—the most common causes of death in dolphins.

Instead, the Louisiana officials found a tiny piercing on the right side of the dolphin's blowhole. That hole would later reveal the cause of death: a small bullet lodged in the animal's lung.

The killing turned out to be another in a growing string of apparent attacks on dolphins and other marine mammals reported along the Gulf Coast in recent months.

According to a December report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in 2012 three dolphins with gunshot wounds were found "stranded" (or washed ashore) along the Gulf Coast—the highest number since 2004.

In addition to those with gunshot wounds, several mutilated dolphins—with severed heads, missing tails, full-body slashes across their abdomens, and missing pieces of jawbone—have been discovered in recent months off the shores of Alabama, Florida, and Texas. While the general mortality rate has not increased in dolphins, scientists and animal-rights advocates are finding an unusual amount of evidence suggesting human harm to the animals.

Last June, for instance, a dolphin was spotted swimming in Perdido Bay, near the Florida-Alabama border, with a screwdriver sticking out of its head. A day later the dolphin was found dead in the water just west of Dupont, Alabama.

Such incidents prompted NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) to launch a federal investigation last November into crimes against dolphins in the Gulf. Killing a dolphin or any other marine mammal is a federal crime punishable by up to $100,000 in fines and a year in jail.

Because the dolphin attacks have occurred sporadically, along all 1,680 miles of the Gulf Coast, officials do not believe they are the work of "one single madman," as Humane Society field director Sharon Young explains. "It may be comforting to think it's one person doing this," she says, "but it really isn't."

Unusual Cruelty

Getting to the reasons behind these deaths and injuries and piecing together the evidence needed to prosecute those responsible is proving tricky. At present, different theories abound.

Brian Kot, a post-doctoral marine research scientist at Texas A&M University, describes the dolphin shootings as a "thrill kill," in which gunmen use the marine mammals for target practice. As for the maimings, Kot suspects that such incidents almost always occur after the animals are already dead.

"Marine mammals often get close to boats, but they don't come into contact," Kot explained. "The only way a person could stab a marine animal is after it has died."

It's hard to imagine why a person would perform such a cruel act on an innocent animal, even if it were already dead. Yet psychologists see it all the time, most commonly in the form of antisocial personality disorder (frequently termed "sociopathy"), which is characterized by extreme disregard for the safety of others.

Herbert Nieburg, a Connecticut-based clinical psychologist and consultant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said patients with this disorder often pursue "wanton thrill-seeking" and get a pleasurable feeling of power from hurting a more vulnerable creature.

Not all people with the disorder commit violent crimes, he notes. But most of those who commit these kinds of acts—especially children who repeatedly hurt animals—will develop the disorder.

Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of the Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty Projects department at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), says, "One of the things that seems to underlie most intentional animal cruelty and acts of abuse is a need for power and control. A lot of severe animal cruelty [comes from an] absence of empathy, and also a sense that [the perpetrators] have a right to do these things."

In the case of the recent attacks on dolphins, Lockwood adds, it's hard to assess the killers' intentions.

The Humane Society's Young says that many people collect "souvenirs" from dead dolphins. "They may take a jawbone home because they think it is cool," she says, adding that some "collectors" will cut off the animal's tail.

No Friend of Fishers

Most documented cases of dolphin mutilations and shootings can be traced back to fishermen, though cruelty is not their prime motivator.

"There have been incidents of dolphins approaching boats and [raising] the ire of fishermen, who shoot at them in revenge," says Young. That "ire" stems from competition for resources, with fishermen fearful of losing their hard-earned haul—and profit—to hungry dolphins.

Moreover, dolphins occasionally get caught in the gears of boats. According to a NOAA analysis, "Fishermen often mutilate the carcasses of small cetaceans to facilitate disentanglement."

Allison Garrett, a NOAA spokesperson, says the cases involving fishers point to a larger issue: Many beachgoers feed the dolphins, which conditions them to associate humans with food. Since dolphins are avid learners and teachers, they pass that association on to their young.

So a fishing boat could look, to a dolphin, like an invitation for food and social interaction. This may lead to what NOAA officials calls a "brazen attempt," in which dolphins approach a boat and prey on the hooked bait, much to a fisherman's chagrin.

Trouble Far and Wide

Since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, officials and scientists who monitor the effects of oil on ocean life have increased their monitoring of the Gulf Coast. Young says that means "there are more eyes" in the area, and thus more reports of harm being done to dolphins in the region—though not necessarily more actual cases. (While the number of dolphin deaths since the spill has nearly quintupled, the increase has been mostly due to oil damage.)

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig began gushing, for instance, NOAA began to employ surveillance cameras, weekly helicopter flights, and broad aerial surveys to check the area for stranded marine mammals. Before the accident, such work was seldom done—meaning the likelihood of finding a stranded, maimed, or dead dolphin was low by comparison.

Of course, keeping watch doesn't mean that wildlife will be kept safe. Along the California coast, marine mammal cruelty has been reported for years.

Bill Van Bonn, chief veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, spends his days treating seals, sea lions, porpoises, and dolphins. In the past four years, he says, dozens of his patients have appeared with gunshot wounds. Only a few of these animals were eventually released back into the wild. The rest died naturally in captivity or were euthanized because of permanent damage from the wounds.

The center's data indicate that between 2001 and 2011, about 3 percent of the 5,000-plus sea lions treated had gunshot wounds. Van Bonn says the animals he sees represent only a small fraction of the marine mammals being targeted with weapons. Most are simply lost at sea.

A Concern Beyond Count

Indeed, the ocean swallows up much of the evidence that would help authorities prosecute crimes against marine mammals. All but two states—landlocked North and South Dakota—have felonious animal-cruelty laws against such acts.

While it's known that the BP oil spill killed many dolphins, it's unclear how the U.S. dolphin population is faring in general. The issue is one of tracking: There is no way to perform a dolphin head count in the open ocean. The only tracking done in the United States is through "stranding networks" that monitor beached dolphins.

In the coastal states, regional stranding networks—overseen by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service—are responsible for much of marine mammal protection and serve as the first responders for beached marine mammals. These networks, composed mostly of volunteers, were implemented in 1992 as part of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. The program was created through an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Witnesses who find a beached dolphin either contact their local stranding network directly or call the police, who then contact the network. Highly trained volunteers are then sent to the scene to investigate. Depending on what they find, the stranded mammal is either helped back into the water or transported to the closest marine mammal hospital. If the animal is dead when they arrive, the volunteers perform necropsies onsite.

But strandings cannot tell us much about overall dolphin numbers, and in other parts of the world stranding networks are rare. Additionally, different laws apply to different shores. While most of the world has condemned dolphin drive hunting—a practice in which hunters use boats and nets to trap, surround, and drive dolphins onto a beach, where they are killed for food or shipped to aquariums—towns such as Taiji in Wakayama, Japan, still practice the activity and see no cruelty in it. In other countries, like the United States, the practice is considered cruel.

Like whales, dolphins that swim in U.S. waters are safeguarded under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which specifically forbids human harassment of dolphins—or, for that matter, any interaction with the species.

How You Can Help

Several agencies—including NOAA's OLE, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, and the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies—are offering rewards for information about the recent attacks along the Gulf Coast. Reports can be made anonymously on NOAA's hotline, and photos of stranded marine mammals can be submitted via NOAA's downloadable iPhone app.

The good news is that a precedent exists for catching and convicting such offenders. In 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service successfully prosecuted a Florida fisher for throwing pipe bombs at dolphins after a witness reported him. The fisher pleaded guilty, saying he threw the bombs to scare dolphins away from his fishing line.

31 comments
Eric Clifford
Eric Clifford

According to this article,  killing or cruelty to dolphins is punishable by imprisonment and $100,000 .  Are we enforcing the law with BP ?  Are they paying for each dead dolphin?  Is anyone in jail yet over the "accident" ?  It's not an accident anyway.  Deep water drilling is an unthinkable mass killing of sea life.  Experts knew this would happen and it did.  It will continue to happen.  Sounds to me like someone is putting suffering animals out of their misery.   It's an inexcusable, disgusting act of greed to be trying to squeeze mother nature for every drop of oil at the expense of fragile eco systems all living things on this planet rely on and it's ridiculous that we the people of the US can't decide to spend that money on Oil and wars over oil security on clean renewables.  Hydrogen is something we could all make at home and fill our cars at night with. pretty much for free.  Greedy frackers prevent this from happening.  They jokingly ask, where do we put the meter? 

I have an excellent idea on that one.  Cheers all.  I raise a glass of Pennsylvania fracking water to all of you spineless, brainless, greedy politicians that perpetuate the problem.

L. Banks
L. Banks

Has anyone tried the app? 

Richard Holman
Richard Holman

I have read through the article twice I can not see where the writer ever referred to dolphins as fish. However I agree some comment was due regarding the apparent contradiction of the "dead dolphin" swimming! I disagree that a marine mammal could only be stabbed after death, I have had dolphins approach me in many different parts of the world and had I wished it would have been easy to have inflicted an injury on them.

Don Meilner
Don Meilner

A well written article. Evidently some folks that ply the waters have a M. Vick mentality and little or no regard for life and the living. That being said though....I'm a hypocrite who enjoys steak, pork, chicken, shrimp etc.

Billel N.
Billel N.

Prier DIEu !!! Je pens pas,ils ne ont pas le culture dans la vie,donc!

Besoin non seulment de compact punition.........

ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

là où je me trouve je ne peux rien pour eux, sauf prier DIEU que ces horreurs cessent , et que ces magnifiques créatures puissent échapper à l'extinction par la faute de ces sanguinaires qui se divertissent ou se défoulent sur eux.

Ken Williams
Ken Williams

geoengineering / chemtrails I would say.

Zollie Schut
Zollie Schut

The writer states "...a dolphin was spotted swimming in Perdido Bay, near the Florida-Alabama border, with a screwdriver sticking out of its head." then quotes Kot "The only way a person could stab a marine animal is after it has died." and flat out ignores the contradiction. As already stated dolphins are not fish. 

Also, they travel in pods. If dolphins are such quick learners, would they not begin to notice that other dolphins in the pod are dying when they approach these boats and pass THAT knowledge to their young? 

The sad thing about this article is not that dolphins are being killed (which by the way is nothing new, canned tuna anyone?). The tragedy here is that many people will accept information like this as fact even though it is clearly not accurate, poorly written. Step back, look closer. This level of work is barely fit for a fast food kitchen.

Corinne Ciocca
Corinne Ciocca

Horrible...just horrible.  Perhaps if we were to stop calling dolphins FISH, it would be a step in the right direction for the protection of MARINE MAMMALS. 

Seriously, is this really NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC news?  Please correct this sentence:   "As for the maimings, Kot suspects that such incidents almost always occur after the fish are already dead."

leeada Johnson
leeada Johnson

So we have a handful of dead dolphins, shot.  This is neither an ecological or national tragedy, or something worth spending time and effort on. 20,000 dolphins slaughtered yearly in Japan Teiji, untold thousands slaughtered in the South Pacific yearly, and this is NG's order of priorities? And for the record, cruelty can not be inflicted on the dead, only on the living, the distortions in the article are more than disappointing. This isn't news, and certainly nothing of significance about our ecosystems.

Alvin Kuhn
Alvin Kuhn

Get a wood-chipper & take it out to sea aboard a ship, bait sharks up to the ship with bait (chum?).  Then  turn the  chipper on at a slow speed, toss the colostomy bags who've done this to the dolphins into the chipper (feet first, of course), and feed the group of sharks.  Until we get back to using forms of "cruel & unusual punishment", this sort of despicable behavior will never cease.     

David Maurer
David Maurer

this reporter - working for national geographic, no less - thinks dolphins are fish.

David Maurer
David Maurer

this reporter - working for national geographic, no less - thinks dolphins are fish.

Billel N.
Billel N.

Unfortunately to hear that,I don't know why they don't respect their environement,I think they have no cultur how to control their lives,and every thing around them.......

They should be a very sTrict lows for that kind of killer to reduce this bad habiT ......

Good Luck for saving marine life.

Jahongir Hakimov
Jahongir Hakimov

Very interesting and mournful article. I hope that governments of coastal countries will take meassures for protecting Marine Mammals from evil men or even country like Japan. Thank You very much.

maureen mendoza
maureen mendoza

Just put all the responsible for the dolphin killings in jail and make them pay, to make the story short.

david iarussi
david iarussi

Cruelty is a disorder?  ah...psychoanalysts; the science with a cure rate hovering around 1 - 2% and the highest suicidal tendencies of any profession.  Fisher persons (to be FAIR) competing with dolphins for fish at least has a plausibility to its logic.  Perhaps it is the dolphins who are in need of a personality disorder.  If we can arm bears against human hunters, can dolphins be far behind?  

Alba D'Agostino
Alba D'Agostino

a retarded person do this! i can t  understand such a cruelty on mammals and animals in general!

Krista L
Krista L

Um... You know dolphins are mammals not fish, right, writer?  Please, someone fix this:

"almost always occur after the fish are already dead."

L. Banks
L. Banks

@Zollie Schut WHERE do you see this? I can't find anything remotely resembling this sentence that makes you (way too) angry.

Stabby L
Stabby L

@Corinne Ciocca I disagree. Fish - both bony and the cartilaginous like sharks and rays - do not deserve this sort of treatment either. Protection of marine life and ecosystems as a whole would be a step in the right direction, not just reinforcing the hierarchy of life and suffering importance people keep falling back on.

Zollie Schut
Zollie Schut

@L. Banks @Zollie Schut The sentence originally read, "As for the maimings, Kot suspects that such incidents almost always occur after the fish are already dead," was corrected, which I appreciate. Also, I intentionally exaggerated the actual outrage I felt because people need to realize they shouldn't mindlessly believe everything they read on the internet, even if it is National Geographic's website. Also, I think it is reasonable to expect a certain standard of proofreading and polish from this caliber of an organization.

Laurent V.
Laurent V.

@Don Meilner et al The author edited the article with the appropriate fish-mammal correction...but slyly did not leave a footnote. Even i figured that one out.

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