(News Journal file photo)
By: Kimberly Blair, pnj.com
After a private donation Tuesday, the reward is now at almost $25,000 for the person who shot and killed a bottlenose dolphin with a metal-tipped arrow in Orange Beach, Ala.
The reward still stands at $2,500 for a pregnant dolphin found dead Nov. 15 from a small caliber bullet on Miramar Beach.
The almost $25,000 reward is the most ever offered for a dolphin death in the southeast region of the United States, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials, and underscores the public’s outrage over what many are calling a brutal act on a protected and beloved species.
On Tuesday night, the city of Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon and Council approved a resolution authorizing a $3,000 reward in the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the death of a bottlenose dolphin killed with an arrow. According to state law, $3,000 is the maximum reward that a municipality can offer.
The reward along with a huge social media blitz to identify the culprit has led to many credible leads, although no arrests have been made for the person or people who killed both of the bottlenose dolphins, said Gregg Houggaboom, assistant special agent-in-charge for NOAA’s Southeast Law Enforcement.
“We’ve had a significant number of leads coming in, and we’re following up on each and every one of them,” he said. “I don’t want to go into details … but we’re pursing everything as far as we can.”
Reward money has come in from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, The Humane Society of the United States and The Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust, Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation, Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, Cobalt/Cosmos Restaurants, Reel Surprise Fishing Charters, Gulf Chrysler and the Coastal Conservation Association.
As the culprits are hunted down, NOAA officials are strongly asking the public — whether they’re on boats or piers — to absolutely not feed dolphins.
The deaths of these dolphins very likely could be tied to people feeding them, said Stacey Hortsman, a NOAA bottlenose dolphin expert.
“We do know, in general, dolphins that are fed do interact with humans,” she said.
Relating humans to an easy meal, dolphins go for fishing lines and take bait and catches and they patrol boats waiting for anglers to release their catches, which has a tragic domino effect on the marine mammals, Hortsman said.
Anglers and charter boat captains have shot at dolphins and even thrown explosive devices at them to chase them away from their boats, she said.
Between 2002 and 2013, 17 dolphins have stranded from gunshot wounds in the Northern Gulf. The pregnant dolphin brings that total to 18.
Panama City has been the hotspot for dolphin feeding issues for decades, but recently Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier and Navarre Beach Fishing Pier have cropped up as problem areas, Hortsman said.
NOAA and its marine mammal stranding network partners have stepped up outreach efforts to educate pier operators, anglers and the general public that this practice is strictly illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and detrimental to dolphins.
“Feeding dolphins is one of those conservation issues for us in the southeast region,” Hortsman said. “On the surface, the act of feeding or touching a dolphin seems benign, but we are seeing those domino effects. Their behavior is changing, and they’re starting to interact with fishing gear and becoming entangled. And they’re teaching their calves the same behavior. Generations of calves can grow up without having their natural behavior (of hunting for their own food).”
Harassing, harming, killing or feeding wild dolphins is prohibited under the act. Violations can be prosecuted either civilly or criminally and are punishable by up to $100,000 in fines and up to one year in jail per violation.
NOAA depends on educational outreach projects such as “Do not feed dolphins” signs on piers, boat ramps, billboards and even aerial banners along with public service videos is posts on YouTube to educate the public about the issue because enforcement is difficult.
“It’s very difficult,” Houggaboom said. “I have one uniformed officer between St. Petersburg and the Alabama/Mississippi line. We’re talking about a shoreline of hundreds of miles. We rely heavily on the state for this type of work.”
His office has conducted a number of investigations into dolphin feeding issues, primarily in the St. Petersburg and Panama City areas.
When he’s asked why they are focusing so much on feeding dolphins, he points to what seems to be the growing number of dolphin killings.
“It’s a big deal when you have a dolphin shot,” he said.
With federal and state resources so thin, Houggaboom said it would be helpful if local and county officials would monitor and enforce the “no feeding” rule on their piers.
Want to help?
Anyone with information on the recent dolphin deaths or who witnesses someone feeding the dolphins should report it to NOAAs office of law enforcement in Niceville at (850)729-8628 or the NOAA Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964 as soon as possible. Tips may be left anonymously.
To report a stranded, injured or sick dolphin, call 1-877-WHALE-HELP (1-877-942-5343).
Check out a clever cartoon video NOAA posts on YouTube depicting a dolphin addicted to handouts from humans at pnj.com.