New Jersey is stepping up to help the Marine Mammal Stranding Center respond to the extraordinary number of dolphin deaths along the state’s shoreline.
All dolphins that wash up in New Jersey now will be taken to the state Department of Agriculture Animal Health Diagnostic Lab in Ewing, Mercer County. The state Department of Environmental Protection will cover the cost of necropsies and additional tests, agency spokesman Larry Hajna said.
“This means we have less money to have to come up with, and it’s cutting our travel expenses down in half,” said Bob Schoelkopf, founding director of the stranding center in Brigantine.
The DEP also will use its aerial patrols of near-shore waters to report any sightings of floating dolphins to the stranding center, along with individual municipalities, to alert them about where the next wash-up may occur. The extra patrols will be paid for through a $92,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hajna said.
Gov. Chris Christie addressed the announcement Thursday via Twitter: “We're not going to watch as more dolphins die along the Shore. Today we're taking actions to figure out the problem.”
Earlier this week, NOAA said early tests show the deaths likely were due to a naturally occurring outbreak of morbillivirus, the same virus that killed more than 750 dolphins along the East Coast in 1987 and ’88.
Since July 1, 75 dolphins have washed up dead or dying in New Jersey, when normally fewer than five wash up in that time period. A total of 368 dolphins have died between New York and Virginia since July, with many more offshore and uncounted.
NOAA, which is charged with monitoring marine mammals, declared the deaths between New York and Virginia to be an unusual mortality event, opening up funding and resources.
“We are extremely appreciative to the Governor for his efforts to support this investigation in New Jersey,” Maggie Mooney-Seus, NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman, said in a statement. “With these additional resources, our ability to respond to animals on the beach, as well as identify and potentially mitigate other contributing factors, will be greatly enhanced.”
While NOAA’s investigation focuses primarily on morbillivirus, scientists said earlier this week that they also will be looking at other diseases, such as brucella, and environmental factors, such as biotoxins and shifts in the dolphins’ usual living range, as part of ongoing research.
However, NOAA researchers said earlier this week, the agency expects the deaths to follow a pattern similar to that of the 1987 outbreak, with the number of stranded dolphins increasing in southern states as the animals migrate for the winter. A key reason researchers said this outbreak may be so severe is that there is little to no natural immunity in the vast majority of the near-shore dolphin populations.
There also is no way scientists can stop the outbreak, and the illness will have to run its course, likely lasting until late spring 2014, NOAA officials said earlier this week.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center had been paying about $145 per necropsy, plus money to transport the animals to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. Schoelkopf said center vehicles have traveled more than 4,600 miles since July to take the animals for necropsies.
Two veterinary pathologists work at the state lab in Ewing, which opened a little more than a year ago, said Lynne Richmond, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture. This is the first time that marine mammals will be processed at the lab, she said. A large animal takes several hours to process with multiple people working, and Richmond said it’s likely that only one dolphin will be worked on at a time.
Today, the stranding center will bring the first dolphin to the lab, a young male found Thursday afternoon in Wildwood.
Schoelkopf said that if the pattern continues to follow the 1987 outbreak, the dolphins will continue to wash up through early fall, and the vast majority of the animals will be significantly decomposed.
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