St. Petersburg, Florida - Shot or mutilated, dead dolphins are turning up along the Texas border and throughout the Florida panhandle. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials are looking for the person or people responsible, and have also issued a warning for the Florida Gulf Coast.
NOAA officials say no cases of dolphin abuse have turned up along the Tampa Bay coastline or further south, but they are asking for the public's help to report any sightings because each case could hold a clue to solving these cases.
Dovev Weaver of St. Petersburg says when he thinks of a dolphin, he thinks of the friendly 60's show Flipper. Alyssa Weaver says they are not threatening animals. She says, "They're playful creatures who are always nice. They don't try to harm us, why should we try to harm them?"
Yet someone is harming them. Five dolphins have been shot in the last two years. Others are mutilated; one dolphin found near Gulfport had a missing jaw. Another found in Alabama had a missing tail.
In June, a boater took a picture off the Alabama coast of a dolphin with a screwdriver lodged in its back. It was found dead on a Florida beach the next day.
"It's very sad to think someone can do that to any animal... not just dolphins. But that someone could be cruel to animals is always heart breaking," says Erin Fougeres, a Marine Mammal Biologist with NOAA.
She says scientists are not sure if all the man-made injuries caused the dolphins' deaths, but can see how man may be responsible.
Fougeres says, "As animals being fed by the public, they learn to associate people with food so they may come and feed from fishing lines, and that upsets fisherman potentially."
Fougeres says these cases are part of a bigger problem facing the dolphin population in the Gulf coast. She says, "We have seen an unusual mortality rate since February 2010."
More than 700 dolphins have died and biologists with NOAA are trying to determine the cause. Fougeres says, "We are definitely concerned. If these cases occur more frequently, we want to be able to follow up and investigate all of them."
As for these obvious cases of abuse, the hunt is on. Weaver says he's hopes justice is served. "I hope they find the people who've done this. It's definitely uncalled for."
Dolphins are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The law says any harassment, hunting, capturing killing or feeding of the animals carries up to a $100,000 penalty and up to a year in jail per violation.
NOAA asks anyone who sees a dolphin stranding or case of dolphin abuse to report it to NOAA's Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.