Four dolphins with fatal gun shot wounds have washed ashore in the San Diego area in recent weeks, and federal investigators are offering a reward for information about the deaths.
The long-beaked, common dolphins were all discovered between May 29 and June 5 between Carlsbad State Beach and Oceanside Harbor. Their normally sleek, gray skin was mottled and stained with blood from the bullet wounds.
A fifth carcass was found without bullet wounds, but there were lacerations on its pectoral fin.
"It's a horrendous thing that happened," said Mark Oswell, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. "That someone would go out there and shoot four dolphins."
Necropsies, autopsies performed on animals, revealed that the dolphins were all healthy with fish in their bellies. They may have been shot at the same time with the same gun. Four had between one and three bullets of the same caliber in the same part of their heads.
NOAA is charged with the federal investigation and has offered a reward of $2,500 for any information relating to the deaths.
"We're hoping that a witness will answer their conscience that this is a wrong and illegal thing that's been done and call us and provide us with information that will lead to an arrest and hopefully a conviction," said NOAA investigator Michelle Zetwo.
Zetwo said it is likely the dolphins may have gotten caught in some fishing lines and the fisherman got angry. She said it could also be that someone was doing target practice on the water. Lacerations on the fifth, dead dolphin's fin appear to have been caused by a fishing line, she added.
"They were in the wrong place at the wrong time," Zetwo said.
NOAA investigators hope an eye witness will come forward. Otherwise, they will work with the U.S. Coast Guard to track the dolphins' course from where they were shot to where they landed on the beach using the tides.
The last time San Diego reported such a death was five years ago. Prior to that there hadn't been one in the area since the 1960s. Nationwide, federal officials say they usually get one report a year of a dolphin shooting.
"It's very uncommon," Zetwo said. "I've been an agent with NOAA here in San Diego for approximately nine years, and I've never heard of an occurrence like this. It's very unusual."
If caught, the perpetrator could face civil penalties of up to $12,000 or a criminal fine of up to $20,000, as well as jail time.
Harassing or killing dolphins is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, a federal law that protects seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales and other marine mammals.
Written by Kayla Webley from NPR reports and the Associated Press.