Federal wildlife officials are looking for whoever shot a whale at sea, leaving the animal to wander the ocean in agony for a month or more before it beached itself in New Jersey and died. The culprit could get a year in prison and a hefty fine.
Scott Doyle, an agent in charge of the National Marine Fisheries Service's New Jersey shore office, said his agency is hoping someone comes forward to report the shooter.
"Sometimes what we find is months down the road, you get a disgruntled crew member on a boat, or someone who had an argument with someone else, and then you get a phone call," Doyle said.
The nearly 11-foot-long short-finned pilot whale, which was near death, weighed about 740 pounds but should have tipped the scales at more than 1,000 pounds. It died shortly after police responded, but it wasn't until a necropsy was performed that the cause of death was revealed.
Someone had shot the whale.
The wound near its blow hole had closed and faded somewhat, indicating the animal had been wounded as long as a month ago, said Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. The bullet lodged in the whale's jaw, causing an infection that left it unable to eat.
"This poor animal literally starved to death," Schoelkopf said. "It was wandering around and slowly starving to death because of the infection. Who would do that to an innocent animal?"
That's what federal law enforcement authorities want to know, as well. Whales are among the species protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violators can be fined up to $100,000 and sent to prison for a year.
The whale washed up on the beach at Allenhurst, a small Monmouth County town just north of Asbury Park, on Sept. 24.
Schoelkopf said the whale could have been shot anywhere on the East Coast, given the amount of time that it spent losing weight before dying. He said authorities think the bullet, which was recovered from the animal's jaw, came from a .30-caliber rifle.
But Doyle said ballistics tests on the bullet still have not been completed.
"It could have been shot anywhere by numerous persons," he said.
Schoelkopf said shark fishermen commonly carry guns to shoot large sharks they catch before bringing them aboard boats, and speculated that someone on a boat where fishing was slow decided to use the whale for target practice.
"Whoever did this couldn't have been out there alone, and we're hoping somebody who was there speaks up," Schoelkopf said.
He said there have been no other reports of whales being shot on the East Coast, but there remains an investigation into the fatal shootings of several gray seals in Massachusetts this year.
Short-finned pilot whales are part of the dolphin family. They have bulbous melon heads, and their dorsal fin is located far forward on the body. While the animal is swimming, it bears some resemblance to more commonly known species of dolphins.
There have been scattered reports of fishermen shooting at dolphins that they blame for interfering with their catch, although Doyle said he doubts that was the case here.
The whales travel in large groups of 25 to 50 animals, feeding primarily on squid, octopus and fish. According to the national Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, there are about 31,000 pilot whales, both long and short-finned, in the western North Atlantic Ocean.
There are an additional 300 or so off the West Coast of the United States, about 8,800 in Hawaii, and 2,400 in the northern Gulf of Mexico.