The Death of Three Dolphins That Have Been Shot and Stabbed in Florida

Nobody wants to bear witness to a shooting or stabbing, but when that kind of harm is inflicted on dolphins it raises even more questions. Biologists in Florida have discovered three dolphins over the past year that have been stabbed or shot. It’s not something that federal fisheries are accustomed to seeing, especially since they seemed to be harmed intentionally while still alive.

A deceased dolphin was discovered in January in Naples, Florida. Images released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries depict a dolphin with a gaping wound on the right side of its mouth. It’s suspected that the wound was caused by a sharp object such as a knife or potentially a bullet. It was the third one found dead in Florida in less than a year with similar wounds that were likely caused by a gun or a knife.

Officials stated that they have no reason to believe that the killings are connected, but they do know that the intention was to harm the dolphins while they were alive–these are not isolated accidents.

Timeline of Dolphin Shootings and Stabbings in Florida

  • May 2019 – A dolphin was found off Captiva Island with a fatal puncture wound to the head from a spear-like object, possibly stabbed while the dolphin was still alive.
  • January 27th, 2020 – A deceased dolphin was discovered on Pensacola Beach. A necropsy revealed that the dolphin had a bullet lodged into its left side, likely the cause of death.
  • January 30th, 2020 – A dolphin was found in Naples, Florida with a gaping wound caused by a bullet or a knife.

Stacey Horstman, a bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator at NOAA, commented that “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 anything quite like that before.”

Dolphin shootings and stabbings are, unfortunately, are more common than you might think. In April of 2018, a deceased bottlenose dolphin was found in Mississippi with a bullet lodged in the dolphin’s lung. The dolphin was also 12-months pregnant with a full-term calf that was ready to be birthed. Unfortunately, it also passed away as a result of the attack.

From 2002 to 2018, a total of 21 dolphins have been found dead with gunshot wounds according to data from the NOAA. Two others were shot with an arrow, and one was impaled with a screwdriver. Since then, that number has grown to 29 dolphins with one or two occurring each year in the Gulf Coast region. With three dolphin killings in Florida alone in just one year, it raises even more concerns about the safety of dolphins.

Who Would Cause Such Cruelty to Dolphins?

This raises the question; who would inflict such cruelty on a friendly animal such as a dolphin?

Horstman calls it “the domino effect” of feeding wild dolphins.

When people feed wild dolphins, the animals become more comfortable with approaching boats. They also teach their calves to do the same, occasionally taking the bait and approaching humans with a “begging posture” with their mouth open. This is similar to other wild animals–if they are fed, it changes their behavior and makes them more trusting of humans.

Unfortunately, dolphins are playful creatures that will occasionally snatch food off fishing gear and come very close to boats. This causes many fishermen to retaliate by shooing the animals away, but some will respond with weapons and either shoot or stab the dolphins as they get close. In the past, offenders were identified as annoyed fishermen who retaliated after a dolphin snatched their gear or disrupted their fishing.

What Is Being Done to Seek Justice?

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the harassing, hunting, killing or feeding of wild dolphins. Violations can lead to a maximum of $100,000 in fines and up to a year of jail time. In addition, a reward of up to $20,000 is being offered for any information that leads to civil or criminal penalties against those who are responsible for dolphin deaths.

Unfortunately, most people aren’t aware of the laws that protect marine animals. Lincoln O’Barry, a campaign coordinator with the advocacy group Dolphin Project, said “I’d like to think most boaters know, but they don’t. A lot of people don’t know the rules of the sea unless there is signage.”

The group plans to offer an additional $5,000 reward for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the recent dolphin killings.