As scientists along the mid-Atlantic coast seek the cause of nearly 300 dolphin deaths since early July, they are drawing on lessons and information from a similar die-off that struck the area more than 25 years ago.

Even with that knowledge, however, scientists say there may be little they can do to slow the epidemic of dolphin deaths. Researchers have warned that the crisis likely will continue and spread south as dolphins migrate for the winter.

Previous die-offs, along with technological advances in animal pathology, may help scientists determine the epidemic’s cause much faster than researchers did in 1987, when experts struggled even to figure out where to send tissue samples for testing.

Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deemed the deaths between New York and Virginia to be an “unusual mortality event,” opening up funding and increasing the availability of researchers to boost the level of resources. The designation is relatively rare — only 60 have been declared nationwide since 1991, when the program was announced; only one other included New Jersey.

Since July 9, 65 dolphins have washed up dead or dying on New Jersey’s shore. Typically, about 20 bottlenose dolphins are recovered annually, according to NOAA statistics. Between New York and Virginia, more than 250 dolphins have died since July, when typically only 24 do during that time frame.

Multiple population groups of dolphins swim in the areas where the deaths have occurred. The northern migratory population has between 7,100 and 9,600 dolphins; the southern population has between 9,900 and 12,400 dolphins. A third group of dolphins, farther offshore, has many more animals, with between 70,000 and 81,000 living between New England and Florida, according to NOAA records.

Many experts have drawn parallels to the 1987 outbreak of morbillivirus, which killed about 750 bottlenose dolphins along the East Coast between July 1987 and April 1988. But until there is hard evidence that the virus, which is similar to canine distemper and measles, is the cause, researchers and stranding experts will continue to seek the cause.

Looking back

When dozens of dead dolphins began washing up along the Jersey Shore 25 years ago, the reputation for the region’s water quality was in the toilet. Literally.

Raw sewage was being pumped into the ocean at such high rates that bacteria counts caused beaches to be closed for weeks. Medical waste was washing up along New Jersey, and a 50-mile trail of floating garbage trailed out of New York Harbor and down the Jersey Shore.

The dolphins, it seemed, were the final straw.

Investigators were befuddled as to the cause of the deaths. At the time, there were so many possibilities: Toxic waste. Sewage dumping at sea. A new type of mass fishing operation. Disease.

“We thought it was some type of acid being dumped on the animals because of how they looked,” recalled Bob Schoelkopf, founding director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

This time, water quality isn’t the first culprit on investigators’ minds, said Department of Environmental Protection Larry Hajna. Tests along the coast have shown the water quality is excellent.

Charles Potter, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., was one of several researchers who responded to the crisis in 1987 and this one. Potter, who has already spent time helping collect data in Maryland and Virginia, remembered that many of the dolphins had lesions in their mouths that literally rotted away flesh.

Unlike today, Potter said, none of the dolphins he tended in 1987 was live, which made determining a cause of death more challenging. As soon as the animal dies, he said, clues within the tissue begin to disintegrate.

When a cause of death could be determined, it usually was pneumonia, which is common for marine mammals. Most, in fact, were so decomposed that little information could be gleaned from the remains.

It took three years before an answer was found. A marine pathologist from Ontario, Canada, discovered the cause was morbillivirus.

Morbillivirus is one of the top suspects in the ongoing crisis. At least four animals in New Jersey have tested positive for the virus in preliminary tests. There also are numerous similarities in the two die-offs: Both started in early summer and affected healthy animals. Most of the dolphins have washed up dead. Whatever kills the dolphins kills them quickly. Some of the animals have mouth lesions. Others have died from pneumonia.

In most cases, it’s still impossible to tell the cause of death, and pathologists must examine tissues down to the cellular and even genetic level to gain any clues.

A daily struggle

Tuesday morning is quiet for the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. Westerly winds are likely keeping any of the dolphin carcasses that might be in the ocean from washing ashore.

Volunteers from Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation, which is the stranding response group in Delaware, have arrived and are waiting in case of a call. Schoelkopf said once the Delaware volunteers get a call, they can go to the site and take the dolphin bodies straight to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square without having to stop in Brigantine first. Then they can drive home, instead of back to Jersey, saving time and gas.

The quiet time means Schoelkopf and his staff can catch up on cleaning. They need to disinfect the vans used for transport and wash the body bags. The weekend had been busy, with multiple dolphins washing up daily. One dolphin had washed up alive but had already been attacked by sharks. The animal was bleeding so badly that the veins Schoelkopf typically uses to inject the euthanasia drugs had collapsed. To put the dolphin down, he had to inject the drugs straight into the animal’s heart.

As he works and roams the center,  Schoelkopf stops to conduct interviews with media, who are calling from across the country. CNN. Fox News. ABC. His assistant has scheduled interviews every 10 minutes as long as Schoelkopf is available.

Schoelkopf and his staff are on call around-the-clock. If they get a call, someone must respond, even if it’s in the middle of the night, he says. “Especially if it’s a live animal. We can’t say leave it on the beach until morning.”

Workers at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach are working under an even higher level of frenzy and fatigue. Virginia, it seems, is the epicenter of the die-off. So far, more than 165 dolphins have washed up on Virginia beaches this year, with the vast majority coming on the shore of the lower Chesapeake Bay badly decomposed, said Joan Barns, spokeswoman for the aquarium.

Unlike Brigantine’s center, the aquarium has its own autopsy facility. So many animals are coming in that staff there have had to effectively triage which animals they conduct the most extensive tests on. Freshly dead or just euthanized animals are the most important because their tissue samples will be in the best shape.

Each necropsy on an animal in the best condition takes a team of four between six and eight hours, Barns said. Only one animal can be processed at a time, so the rooms are being used around-the-clock by staffers and volunteers coming from other agencies.

Researchers from NOAA and other agencies are working so hard to collect the data that they simply have not had time to begin the analysis. The tissue tests can take weeks to come back and cost several hundred dollars each.

No solution in sight

Meanwhile, the centers all are struggling to pay for the immediate response and, as the start of school comes closer, many interns that worked through the initial part of the die-off have left, leaving fewer people available to handle the animals, paperwork and cleaning.

Funding is running low for all the groups. While donations are coming in as media attention mounts, many of the groups are wondering if the federal government’s contingency fund, which was set up to handle the large stranding events, will be able to help.

The Virginia Aquarium has completely exhausted its annual stranding budget, Barns said. In Brigantine, co-director Sheila Dean said the Marine Mammal Stranding Center just learned it can use about $26,000 in leftover federal grant money to pay for some of the mounting costs. Dean said necropsies that used to cost about $75 now cost about $145.

NOAA has less than $200,000 in the contingency fund, which is going toward costs related to seven events that are ongoing, spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said. The cost to process each animal varies, with tests costing between $29 and more than $1,000, Mooney-Seus said.

If researchers do determine the cause of the deaths is a morbillivirus outbreak, NOAA researchers have said, it will be impossible to innoculate tens of thousands of dolphins with a vaccine. And any illness likely will need to run its course, researchers said.

“Just like in 1987, when you’re in the heat of it, you’re concentrating on collecting data,” Potter said. “But at the end of the evening, you pause and think about it. It’s pretty horrific.”

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