Marine Mammal Stranding Center officials expect the number of dolphins that will die in New Jersey due to an ongoing virus outbreak to exceed that of an outbreak in 1987 that killed 93 dolphins in the state.
As of Thursday, 83 dolphins had washed up dead or dying in New Jersey since July 1, stranding center Co-director Sheila Dean said. “We’re going way past 93 at this rate.”
A total of 430 dolphins have died from New York to North Carolina, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration statistics.
However, Dean said, the dolphin population in recent years is substantially higher than it was in the late 1980s.
In 1987, the outbreak officially killed 93 dolphins in New Jersey, with nearly 750 counted along the East Coast. However, scientists have said those figures do not consider the number of animals that never washed up, and counts in some states may be low because there was no organized stranding response network at the time.
Early last month, NOAA declared the deaths an unusual mortality event, which opened up financial and research resources to the stranding response centers in the affected states. In late August, NOAA announced that initial test results have pinpointed morbillivirus as the preliminary cause of the deaths. Scientists hypothesized that the reason the outbreak was so severe was that the population’s natural immunity had dropped below a tipping point and the animals younger than 26 years old had no natural exposure to the virus. Dolphins live between 40 and 50 years, according to NOAA.
NOAA scientists said there is no way to vaccinate a wild population of dolphins against the illness, and the deaths will continue until the virus runs its course, potentially until spring 2014.
Last week, New Jersey announced it would take over paying for necropsies at the state’s Agricultural Lab in Ewing, Mercer County. That move, Dean said, will save the stranding center a significant amount of money in costs related to transporting the carcasses as well as necropsy fees.
Dean said the Brigantine-based center has about $11,000 in its remaining pool of federal grant money to pay for responding to the dolphin deaths, but the bills from many more necropsies have yet to come in. The center already has spent about $15,000, she said. When that grant money runs out, the center can tap a contingency fund that has nearly $200,000 in it but is being shared among seven other large mortality events elsewhere in the country.
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