Dolphin Deaths

Marine Mammal Stranding Center co-director Bob Schoelkopf

Vernon Ogrodnek

Donations to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center have risen sharply as word has spread of the financial difficulties it is facing amid the growing cost of responding to the nearly three dozen dead dolphins that have washed up since July.

The Brigantine center received a $10,000 check Thursday from a longtime anonymous donor, co-director Sheila Dean said. That’s in addition to a still-to-be-tallied amount from various other sources, including through the center’s website, Dean said.

In just a few days, the center sold several dozen tickets to its fundraiser on Sunday and has received numerous donations to its silent auction. Dean said she now is asking people who want to donate to the silent auction to hold on to items for the next fundraiser in the fall. Donations for the auction on Sunday already include a dinner date with Italian prince and “Bachelor” contestant Lorenzo Borghese.

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On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stepped up its investigation into the dolphin deaths by declaring an “unusual mortality event,” which will open up federal dollars to help stranding centers in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia handle the response costs.

Dean said she was putting together a budget Friday to submit to the agency, outlining what the center may need if the strandings continue at the current pace.

“I have no idea how many animals we will have,” Dean said.

NOAA has a limited amount of money available and the agency’s national coordinator for marine mammal strandings, Teri Rowles, said Thursday the funding will not cover all of the costs associated with the deaths, which scientists currently think are related to a virus outbreak of some type.

The extra costs, which have yet to be determined, have come as the Brigantine center’s operating budget is more than $70,000 in the red since September. The center has been using money from its savings to cover costs.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve faced this,” Dean said, “I’m sure it won’t be the last, but we’ve persevered for the last 35 years.”

Last week, the center’s van broke down for the fifth time in just a month. The van was critical for taking the dolphin carcasses to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for necropsies.

Rather than risk using a vehicle that was so unreliable, center founding director, Bob Schoelkopf, found a used van for $17,000. The new expense was expected to be a $350 monthly payment for five years, but the $10,000 donation will help reduce that significantly by allowing the center to make a large down payment, Dean said.

Other donations are coming from unexpected sources. On Thursday evening, a couple got married and asked guests to make a donation to the stranding center in lieu of gifts, Schoelkopf said. One member of the unidentified couple, Dean said, has been a long-time supporter of the organization.

Schoelkopf said he had to leave the wedding just as the reception began to respond to yet another dolphin. Thursday evening, a female dolphin washed ashore in Wildwood Crest — the 33rd dolphin stranding in New Jersey since July 9. The dolphin, which was lactating, was still alive when center staff arrived, but she died on the way to Brigantine, Schoelkopf said.

The hardest part of that particular stranding, Schoelkopf said, was knowing “somewhere out there is a youngster that is either going to starve to death or be shark prey.”

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