After a string of suspicious dolphin deaths along the Gulf Coast, advocates have been on their toes a little more, according to Crista Stover, the administrative assistant at the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge.
“We know this is happening, so how much more is happening without our knowledge?” Stover asked.
A handful of cases involving mutilated dolphins missing appendages on beaches in Alabama and Louisiana have captured headlines nationwide.
Some of the cases have been especially heinous, according to marine wildlife experts, who’ve seen everything from homemade pipe bombs, gunshot wounds, and screwdrivers stuck in the head of dolphins.
Although Stover said there’s been no activity in Destin, more people in the area have been calling to report anything they think may be related, including discovering stingray fins, which are being confused for dorsal fins.
“Because of how well-loved dolphins are and because of the heinous state in which they are being found, people are more alert,” said Stover.
She adds that everyone has their theories about who or what is killing the animals, but no one has any solid evidence leading to any one person or group of people.
So officials are quick to point out that this does not appear to be the work of a “dolphin serial killer.”
In fact, it turns out, that those who love dolphins often pose more risks to the animals.
"The dolphins are being loved to death," said Allison Garrett, the communications specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Southeast regional office and science center.
Experts point out that human and dolphin interaction has become a real threat to the playful species.
"It's not natural for dolphins to beg for food, they learned that from us," said Erin Fogeres, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrative Southeast training program administrator. "The most important thing is to remember that dolphins are wild animals, not pets.”
Although it’s tempting to swim, pet and feed dolphins, don't do it. Not only is it illegal, but its harmful to the animal in the long run, according to marine biologists and dolphin experts.
"The dolphins will teach their babies that humans’ equal food, whether that’s a fisherman’s net or hook or a boat, then that baby will become dependant on people for food, which may in turn make some people angry down the line, which could cause retaliation." said Garnett.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act passed in 1972, anyone caught harassing, harming, killing or feeding wild dolphins can be prosecuted either civilly or criminally and, if found guilty, is subject to pay up to $100,000 in fines and up to one year in jail per violation.
As for the dolphins that have been found missing tails, jaws and other appendages, as of now those are thought to have been done post-mortem.
"Thankfully, we have no reason to believe it was some sick form of torture right now," said Fogeres.
She continued, saying that often times people will see the body of a deceased animal and take a portion of it as a sort of "trophy." Another alternative they are looking into is "unfortunately, sometimes animals get stuck in fishing nets or other gear, and cutting a certain appendage off is the best way to save the fishing gear," Fogeres said.
If you see anyone harming, feeding or illegally interacting with dolphins or any other wildlife call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hotline at 888-404-3922. To learn more about dolphin safety visit dontfeedwilddolphins.org.