Gulf of Mexico dolphin deaths – a disgusting disgrace!

wildlife tradeIn the last week, the national press has highlighted a series of events in the Gulf of Mexico regarding dolphin deaths connected to human interactions. In June, a dolphin was reported dead in the waters between Florida and Alabama; a screwdriver was found stuck in its head.  In September, a bottlenose dolphin washed ashore in Louisiana with a gunshot wound just below its blowhole; during the necropsy, a bullet was found in the dolphin’s lung, and it was this gunshot that was deemed the cause of death.  Just last week, another dolphin washed ashore in Mississippi, its lower jaw had been extracted.  Other dolphins have been reported dead, with fins torn off, cuts and slashes to their bodies, gunshot wounds, and one whose entire fluke was missing.  Additionally, there have been recent lawsuits against recreational boaters attempting to feed and pet wild dolphins, which is harmful for many reasons – it is not safe for humans or dolphins, and it encourages dolphin-human interaction within the dolphins’ natural environment. 

Attempting to feed, pet, or play with wild dolphins is not only dangerous – it’s illegal.  This past October marked the 40th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), a landmark piece of legislation for this country’s wildlife conservation efforts. The MMPA prohibits the “take” (injury, harassment, or killing) of any marine mammal in U.S. waters, by U.S. citizens outside of U.S. waters, and it prohibits the importation of marine mammals or marine mammal products into the U.S.  These prohibitions all have exceptions, of course.  Exemptions are made for incidental take by fishermen, and permits are given for scientific purposes, as well as in some other special instances.  Violators of the Act can face fines of up to $20,000 and up to one year in prison.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the MMPA, has noticed an influx of human-related incidents when it comes to dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico.  However, it is entirely possible that the recent mutilation events are not related to one another; they were spread out temporally and geographically.  There could also be another explanation for this spike; following the horrific explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig, there was a dramatic increase in the number of people and organizations who came to the Gulf to monitor the environment and the species affected by the oil spill.  This included many new stranding-response teams, which have remained in the area, which could potentially explain why more incidents are being reported. It may not be that more incidents are occurring, but simply that there are more people in the area whose job it is to look out for these incidents and report them.

Another issue worth noting is that at the moment, it is difficult to discern whether the mutilations happened pre- or post-mortem.  If they were pre-mortem, then there’s a strong chance the events caused the death of the dolphins. If, however, the mutilations occurred after the dolphins had already died, then these fatalities may not have any more significance than other dolphin deaths reported.

The death of a marine mammal is tragic; but when these deaths occur in accidental situations, such as entanglement or fishery bycatch, it is clear that the people involved did not intentionally hurt the animal.  But in these recent cases, there appears to have been malicious intent.  Even if the mutilations were post-mortem, these actions still show a disregard for these animals.  Cetaceans – whales and dolphins – have a special place in our hearts and minds. They are simply amazing creatures.  They possess intelligence, curiosity, and empathy.  The dolphins, or even just their lifeless bodies, deserve respect.  Hopefully the criminals who did this will be apprehended and punished – if it was one individual, or multiple individuals in a series of isolated incidents.  Whether it is dolphins, or whales, or seals or polar bears, marine animals – in fact all animals – deserve our admiration and protection. 


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