The federal government shutdown will have little effect on how the Brigantine Marine Mammal Stranding Center is responding to the ongoing dolphin die-off, but research conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has effectively ground to a halt.
The die-off, preliminarily attributed to an outbreak of morbillivirus in the wild Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin population due to a lack of natural herd immunity, has been monitored by NOAA since July.
The stranding center receives no federal funding for its operations, founding director Bob Schoelkopf said.
“Some (other stranding) groups are affected more, but it’s not bothering us,” he said.
As of Friday, 113 dolphins have washed up dead or dying in New Jersey, Schoelkopf said.
The center’s role in the response has been limited to responding and transporting the animals to laboratories for exams, first in Kennett Square, Pa., but now to the state’s Department of Agriculture lab in Ewing, Mercer County. The center has provided NOAA with data about where each animal has been found.
However, NOAA and other federal scientists have been forced to stop work on research during the shutdown.
“We’re focused on life and property right now,” said Lt. Fionna Matheson, a NOAA Corps officer and agency spokeswoman who is working without pay until Congress approves a budget.
Schoelkopf said he expects the dolphin deaths to continue in New Jersey until the ocean temperature gets too cold and the fish on which the dolphins are feeding migrate south.
During the 1987 morbillivirus outbreak, the deaths ended in New Jersey by the end of September, Schoelkopf said. But warmer-than-normal water temperatures has kept the dolphins around later into the year.
Most of the animals washing up on New Jersey beaches in the past few weeks are severely decomposed. The stranding center takes only a tooth sample and a skin sample for age and DNA information, Schoelkopf said.
As of Sept. 23, about 675 dolphins have died between New York and North Carolina. The 1987 outbreak officially killed nearly 750, but NOAA scientists have said the overall population is larger than it was 25 years ago.
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