It's hard to believe, but someone has been killing and mutilating dolphins along the beaches of north Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Now, authorities are asking tourists and residents to be on the lookout for suspects and injured dolphins.
And a lot of people are in disbelief.
"Mutilating one of those animals is awful. I couldn't understand anyone ever doing that to one of them," said Cliff Atwell, a life-long Destin resident.
Dolphins are being shot, stabbed, mutilated, and others are washing ashore from disease. Since 2011, eight dolphins have been found shot to death in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Last November, one was found dead off the coast of Mississippi with its lower jaw missing.
Now, officials want everyone along the coast to look for dolphins in trouble.
Steve Shippee, a conservation biologist and dolphin expert, says the sooner biologists can to the dolphins, the better.
"Obviously we want to recover the deceased animals to do exams, but for the live animals, the quicker we get to the animal, the better the outcome, the quicker we will be able to transport the animal to a rehabilitation facility," Shippee said.
What happens to the dolphins goes beyond protecting a species. They are fixtures in places like Destin -- as much a part of the landscape as sand on the beach and tourists with cameras. Some dolphins have lived in the area for decades.
"We really would like to educate people more and more about the dolphins and let them know that the dolphins you are seeing are not just haphazard dolphins, they are part of local dolphin resident pod. They have lived here for years, some of them over 30 years," Atwell said.
Scientists have been tracking the unusually high dolphin mortality rate here for years -- even before the BP oil spill and the series of dolphin attacks and mutilations.
But they say they need help.
"We rely on people who are out on the beaches to be the first responders. People who are out on the beaches are going to see the animal and call it in properly," said Crista Stover, spokeswoman for the Emerald Coast WiRdlife refuge.
Marine experts say they don't know why anyone would want to kill dolphins. But in the past, fishermen and charter boat captains have been convicted of harming dolphins they thought were taking bait or fish.
Dolphins are among the species protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violators can be fined up to $10,000 per violation and sent to prison for a year.
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FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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