N.J. boosts money for dolphin work

Posted: August 31, 2013

Officials are pumping money and muscle into efforts to deal with the mounting number of bottlenose dolphins that are washing onto the Jersey Shore.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said Thursday that staff flying planes over coastal beaches to monitor water quality would now specifically look for stranded or floating dolphins.

That way, they can call officials to alert them to animals that might be near swimming beaches - and potentially drawing sharks.

Tallying these offshore dolphins also will "give us a better handle on the true nature of the situation," said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the department. "We don't know how many are dying out in the ocean and not washing up."

The DEP will extend the flights beyond the normal summer water monitoring season, officials said.

The agency also plans to expand beach patrols by conservation officers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will contribute $92,000 toward the patrols on land and in the air.

Meanwhile, the state will test the carcasses at its Department of Agriculture lab in Ewing Township, rather than sending them to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square.

The stepped-up effort comes none too soon for Bob Schoelkopf, executive director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

Schoelkopf, who labors alongside four members of the nonprofit's staff to recover the carcasses, has been working seven days a week since July 9. They picked up the 75th dolphin since then on Thursday, from a Wildwood Crest beach.

He said his organization's $650,000 annual budget for stranding work had already been spent. Travel expenses alone - trucking carcasses to Chester County for necropsies - have gone "above and beyond that," he said. But donations have been coming in.

More than 360 dolphins have come ashore this season on beaches from New York to Virginia - more than nine times the recent historical average.

On Tuesday, federal fisheries officials said they had identified a probable cause: morbillivirus, a relative of measles in humans and distemper in dogs. They theorize that migratory coastal populations of dolphins not resistant to the virus may have been infected by offshore populations.

Federal officials have formally declared the strandings an "unusual mortality event," which allows Washington to control the investigation and frees up some funds.

Based on a similar outbreak in 1987-88, they suspect that many more dolphins will die before the population becomes resistant to the virus.

Schoelkopf, however, is hopeful that the virus may be running its course. He worked on the previous outbreak, when 93 animals washed ashore in New Jersey. His records indicate that the last recovered animal that time had landed on Sept. 31.

Officials are emphasizing that people who come across a stranded dolphin not touch it or allow pets near it. Morbillivirus is not transmissible to humans, but the animals may have other pathogens that are.

And animals floating in the water should not be approached, officials said, because sharks may be feeding.

Anyone who spots a stranded animal should call the stranding center in Brigantine at 609-266-0538.

Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, "GreenSpace," at www.inquirer.com/ greenspace.

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