Image: Dead pilot whale
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center via AP
This 740-pound pilot whale died shortly after washing up on a beach in Allenhurst N.J., on Sept. 24.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/6/2011 5:13:15 PM ET 2011-10-06T21:13:15

Activists best known for chasing Japanese whalers and protecting wildlife of all kinds have taken it upon themselves to offer rewards totaling $12,500. The object of their desire: the person who shot a pilot whale that later died of starvation on a N.J. beach.

$10,000 is being put up by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and $2,500 by The Humane Society of the United States.

Even if the culprit is never caught, the groups figure offering such rewards will deter others from crimes against wildlife.

"Rewards are a deterrent because people know there is a financial incentive" for others to turn them in, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson tells msnbc.com.

And sometimes they actually produce results. "Our reward program recently led to the arrest and the conviction of a man in New Zealand for clubbing seal pups to death," says Watson, who runs the group best known for chasing Japanese whalers on the cable TV show "Whale Wars."

Payment of that reward — the New Zealand equivalent of $8,800 — is pending conclusion of the case in which a second man also could be convicted.

In the New Jersey case, informants are asked to call Matt Gilmore, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at (732) 280-6490 or NOAA's (800) 853-1964 hotline. Callers may remain anonymous.

Whales are among the species protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violators can be fined up to $100,000 and sent to prison for a year.

NOAA investigator Jeff Ray tells msnbc.com that no solid leads have developed in the case.

Rescuers knew something was seriously wrong with the short-finned pilot whale when it beached itself on a beach in Allenhurst on Sept. 24.

The nearly 11-foot-long whale, which was near death, weighed about 740 pounds but should have easily tipped the scales at more than 1,000 pounds. It died shortly after police responded, but it wasn't until a necropsy was performed that the shocking cause of death was revealed.

Someone had shot the whale.

The wound near its blow hole had closed and faded somewhat, indicating the animal had been shot as long as a month ago, said Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. The bullet lodged in the whale's jaw, causing an infection that left it unable to eat.

"This poor animal literally starved to death," Schoelkopf said. "It was wandering around and slowly starving to death because of the infection. Who would do that to an innocent animal?"

Schoelkopf said the whale could have been shot anywhere on the East Coast, given the amount of time that it spent losing weight before dying. He said authorities think the bullet, which was recovered from the animal's jaw, came from a .30-caliber rifle.

He said shark fishermen commonly carry guns to shoot large sharks they catch before bringing them aboard boats, and speculated that someone on a boat where fishing was slow decided to use the whale for target practice.

"Whoever did this couldn't have been out there alone and we're hoping somebody who was there speaks up," Schoelkopf said.

He said there have been no other reports of whales being shot on the East Coast, but there remains an active investigation into the fatal shootings of several gray seals in Massachusetts earlier this year.

Short-finned pilot whales are part of the dolphin family. They have bulbous melon heads, and their dorsal fin is located far forward on the body. While the animal is swimming, it bears some resemblance to more commonly known species of dolphins.

There have been scattered reports of fishermen shooting at dolphins that they blame for interfering with their catch.

The whales travel in large groups of 25 to 50 animals, feeding primarily on squid, octopus and fish. According to the national Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, there are about 31,000 pilot whales (both long and short-finned) in the western north Atlantic Ocean.

There are an additional 300 or so off the West Coast of the United States, about 8,800 in Hawaii, and 2,400 in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Msnbc.com's Miguel Llanos and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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