For the past three years, whales and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico have been undergoing what the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is calling an “unusual mortality event”—that is, they have been stranding and dying off by the hundreds (817 in all), and no one knows why. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe provides a likely explanation, but, in fact, 114 marine mammals died in 2010 even before the devastation of the oil spill had even begun.
It could have something to do with a bacterial infection, known as brucellosis, revealed in some animal necropsies, or it could be related to environmental degradation, climate change, fishing activity, or the cumulative effects of all these combined stressors. Or, it could largely be a natural phenomenon merely exacerbated by anthropogenic impacts (though unlikely). It is truly a mystery.
What is less mysterious is the cause of death for three of the most recent dolphin victims. In the past six months, two bottlenose dolphins washed ashore, one in Louisiana and one in Mississippi, with gunshot wounds to their heads. In Alabama, another live dolphin was discovered stabbed in the head with a screwdriver. Though it initially survived this brutality, the dolphin eventually succumbed to its injuries and died. NOAA is currently investigating these cases and asks anyone with any information to call their Office of Law Enforcement hotline at 1-800-853-1964. Penalties under the Marine Mammal Protection Act range up to $100,000 in fines and up to one year in jail per violation.