Potentially stranded Marine mammal site may leave Brigantine.

Posted: August 12, 2007

BRIGANTINE, N.J. — The only organization in New Jersey authorized by the state to rescue distressed marine mammals may close in three years if local officials decide there is a more valuable use for the waterfront property it leases from the city.

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, home to scientists who help wrong-way whales in the Delaware River and newborn seals that crawl onto highways, established a venerable marine veterinary-care center 22 years ago on land leased from the city for $1 a year.

The stranding center's property, running along a back-bay tributary known as the Bonita Tideway, is now worth $3 million to $5 million, the City of Brigantine estimates. The city figures it can get more than a dollar a year when the center's lease expires in 2010.

The stranding center's founder, Bob Schoelkopf, said Brigantine officials welcomed his facility back in 1985, persuading him to move his saltwater tanks and holding pools and an assortment of rescued seals and other creatures from Atlantic City to the narrow lot here.

Since then, Schoelkopf and his wife, Sheila Dean, have expanded the private, nonprofit center on the half-acre lot on Brigantine Boulevard. They have responded to more than 2,000 marine mammal strandings in New Jersey and throughout the East Coast over the years, and the center has grown to include rehabilitation buildings and pools for the animals as well as a small museum and gift shop for human visitors.

Much of its $450,000 annual budget comes from private donations.

"It suits us now to be here and it has suited us for 25 years, but we have known for a while that we have outgrown this facility," Dean said. "But the problem is: We just don't know where we go from here."

That space problem is on a collision course with the Jersey Shore real estate boom.

Shore property values continue to rise, even though the boom has tapered off elsewhere, and the value of the property the center rents from the city has soared. Beyond the land value, luxury homes or condos would bring more property taxes to the city.

"Nobody wants to kick the Marine Mammal Stranding Center out of Brigantine, but there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved here," said Mayor Philip Guenther, who said he and City Council members had been trying to help the stranding center find a new home.

Guenther was instrumental in persuading Schoelkopf to move his operation to Brigantine back when the town was a rugged barrier island north of Atlantic City still evolving as a bedroom community for casino workers.

But now, tying up a city-owned asset that may be worth as much as $5 million isn't financially responsible, Guenther said.

"And the question becomes whether the state or federal government should be shouldering some of the burden for the stranding center," Guenther said. "We're facing some tough budget decisions in the future as the state continues to pull back more and more funding. My job and the job of City Council is to protect the taxpayers of Brigantine."

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center is one of 15 such centers in the Northeast and 74 nationally that can legally respond to marine mammal strandings, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service.

"It would certainly create a void in our network if we were to lose the Marine Mammal Stranding Center," said Janet Whaley, a veterinarian and national marine mammal coordinator for NOAA. "The work they do is invaluable."

Often, Whaley said, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center - and other centers in the NOAA network - are on the front line of spotting trends and making recommendations when something has gone awry in the sea.

Last year, for example, the stranding center was the first to report that dozens of sick and starving marine mammals - including Arctic hooded seals and a manatee - began beaching themselves along the mid-Atlantic shoreline in areas where they normally would not be found.

And who else are you going to call when the stinking, five-ton carcass of a humpback whale washes up amid the sunbathers and swimmers on a genteel Ocean City beach, which happened four summers ago?

Guenther and other city officials are careful to commend the work of the stranding center. He said they just want to help it explore other real estate options.

"Many of the centers in the network, while operating as private nonprofits, work with state and federally funded groups, such as universities, to help with funding and location issues," Guenther said. "For some reason, that isn't happening in New Jersey."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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