This has not been a good week for bottle-nosed dolphins in South Jersey.

In the past week, six dolphins have washed up dead or dying on beaches in Long Beach Island or Ocean City, said Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

Two of the dolphins showed signs of being caught in some type of fishing net, Schoelkopf said, an indication the animals were ensnared during a commercial fishing operation. A third dolphin washed up with its throat slit, the knife wound running all the way down to its stomach, he said.

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“We’re trying to find out from (Bureau of Marine Fisheries) if there is some type of commercial fishing operation that was observed,” Schoelkopf said.

The six dolphins ranged in size and age from babies to full-grown adults, Schoelkopf said. The first washed up in the Spray Beach section of Long Beach Township on July 18. On Monday, two dolphins washed up, one in Holgate and the other in Barnegat Light. Wednesday, another dolphin washed up in Holgate and one was found in Ocean City. And early Thursday another dolphin washed up in Ship Bottom.

Commercial fishing fleets often catch animals they don’t intend to, but boats are required by federal law to report if they accidentially catch a marine mammal, said Mendy Garron, the Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency also uses observers in commercial fishing operations to ensure regulations are followed and bycatch is documented, she said.

But observers are not on every boat. Schoelkopf said he has not received any reports from an observer that may explain the local dolphin strandings.

Garron said there has been a general uptick in the number of bottlenosed dolphins washing up on beaches between New Jersey and Virginia, with an average of one dolphin per day for the past few weeks. However, researchers still need to look at historical data to see if there is a statistically significant trend, Garron said.

But six dolphins washing up on a roughly 30-mile stretch of beach in only two weeks is unusual, which is why the animals have been sent off to labs for necropsies, or the animal equivalent of an autopsy, Garron said.

“We are very interested in seeing those necropsy reports,” Garron said. “If there is any indication of human interaction or fishing interaction, we do tend to investigate more.”

NOAA could ultimately refer the cases to the agency’s law enforcement branch if the investigation warrants, she said.

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