Two dolphins were found off the coast of Florida with fatal wounds within the same week, scientists announced Tuesday.
Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found a dolphin wounded from what appeared to be a bullet, a sharp object or both off Naples late last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement. The second dolphin was discovered along Pensacola Beach with a bullet in its left side.
In May, a dolphin with a fatal puncture wound in its head was found off Captiva Island. There is evidence that at least 26 other dolphins that have been found stranded in the Southeast were harmed by guns, arrows or fishing spears, according to NOAA. Four of the cases occurred within the last year.
Stacey Horstman, NOAA's bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator, said the deaths could be due to the illegal feeding of dolphins.
"When dolphins are illegally fed, their behaviors change, and when that happens, they start associating people and boats and fishing gear with food," Horstman said in an interview.
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Horstman said that when dolphins are illegally fed, they know where to go for food and they take up a begging position, in which they either have their heads out of the water with their mouths open or look up at the boat while on their sides. The dolphins found last week are believed to have been in a begging position when they were harmed.
"When they are in that begging posture, they are one to two feet from the boat," Horstman said.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act seeks to ensure that all marine mammal species remain essential, functioning parts of their ecosystems by prohibiting any attempted or successful hunting, harassing, capturing or killing of marine mammals. The offenses are punishable by up to $100,000 in fines and up to a year in jail per violation, according to NOAA.
NOAA said a reward of up to $20,000 was being offered for information leading to a civil penalty or criminal conviction in connection with the latest deaths.