FORT MYERS, Fla. – After the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recovered a dead dolphin last week near Naples that was shot in the head with a gun or spear, a $20,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to civil penalties or a criminal arrest.
FWC recovered another dolphin last week off the Panhandle that had been shot in the side. Last year, a dolphin was also found shot off Captiva.
The reward is being offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“These cases can rarely be solved without the public, people coming forward and saying they might have seen something and we can follow up on that,” said Tracy Dunn, assistant director of NOAA’s Southeast law enforcement division.
Bottlenose dolphins are one of the most popular animals roaming the coast of the Sunshine State, and they’re popular with tourist and residents alike.
But some people feed dolphins, and that can lead to dire consequences.
“The dolphin off of Naples and the one from Captiva last year were likely in what we called begging posture,” said Stacey Horstman, a bottlenose dolphin expert with NOAA.
Dolphins that learn to associate humans with food can become habituated to following boats and begging for food.
“I think it’s really hard for a lot of people to see how a simple thing like feeding a dolphin can lead to shocking and egregious behavior like this,” Horstman said. “They don’t think about it when they feed them.”
Horstman said some dolphins will begin to rely on being fed by boaters and will start to approach them and get close to the boats.
The injury that killed this latest dolphin seems to have come at close range, and there is a fruit-sized hole in the right side of the dolphin’s head, just in front of the right eye.
Bottlenose dolphins are the most common species found along the coast of Southwest Florida.
They reach between 6 and 12 feet in length and can live 50 years or more, according to FWC.
“Stay approximately 50 yards away from viewing dolphins in the wild, and that’s your best bet for not impacting them,” Horstman said. If they swim up to your boat, “put the boat engine in neutral. If the dolphin is begging, do not try to engage with that animal in any way.”
Horstman said public education is key because some people don’t see the harm in giving a dolphin a free meal.
“It’s a big challenge we face because the dolphin starts to associate people with food, that dolphin has a new tool in its tool box,” she said. “They still know how to hunt for fish naturally. And it only takes a few times for a dolphin to be fed that it will start to beg.”
It’s against federal law to feed or harass dolphins, and penalties can include a $100,000 fine and up to one year in jail.
If you or someone you knows has information about this crime, call the NOAA wildlife hotline at (800) 853-1964.
Follow Chad Gillis on Twitter: @ChadGillisNP