A common dolphin found stranded but alive Monday in Barnegat Bay died soon after it was removed from the beach, making it the third dolphin death in recent days.
Two other dolphins died this weekend, one in the Delaware Bay in Lower Township, the other in the Venetian Bayou Lagoon in Ocean City.
Examinations have been scheduled for all three dolphins to determine whether their deaths are related to a mass stranding last month in Cape Cod, Mass., Marine Mammal Stranding Center Director Bob Schoelkopf said.
The Stranding Center in Brigantine had tried to save the dolphin, Schoelkopf said.
The Ocean City dolphin is believed to be a juvenile, perhaps the calf of a common dolphin seen swimming freely in the lagoon Friday. No dolphins were seen in the lagoon Monday.
The dead animals were trucked to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine in New Bolton, Pa. A spokeswoman at the lab said getting results from the necropsies - the animal equivalent of autopsies - could take a week or more.
The veterinary hospital treats large animals ranging from horses and cows to zoo elephants, spokeswoman Sally Silverman said.
Meanwhile, the Stranding Center is preparing for the possibility of more strandings.
"It's not over yet," Schoelkopf said. "I imagine it's going to be an ongoing event. We have additional sightings of three animals this morning traveling through the Cape May Canal. They had some strandings in Rhode Island. The range of stranding events is spreading. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Delaware has them now."
More than 160 common dolphins - an open-ocean species found off New Jersey year-round - have stranded off Cape Cod this year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Most were found dead, but 40 were rescued and released into deeper water.
Just what causes whales and dolphins to strand largely remains a mystery. Along with diet, disease and other factors, scientists are studying any correlation between military naval exercises and marine mammal strandings.
"There's still a fight between the Navy and a lot of people over that," Schoelkopf said. "They know that sonar could be affecting dolphins, but the naval people say they weren't in that area so it wasn't us. And it's hard to prove differently."
By coincidence, the U.S. Fleet Forces Command received a two-year permit Feb. 1 allowing the Navy to harass or even kill a certain number of whales and dolphins as necessary during their naval operations in the North Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.
The 21-page report outlines exactly how many animals of each species may be harassed during the two-year permit period and the steps naval craft must take to prevent harm to animals, including conducting aerial surveys and posting trained lookouts aboard Navy craft to scan for whales or dolphins before and during exercises.
If whales or dolphins are spotted, Navy craft must reduce their sonar strength or take other measures to prevent harm.
The rules also forbid Navy operations in certain in-shore areas where endangered northern right whales are commonly found. This includes much of the Delaware Bay during the winter and spring migrations. The rules even limit the time of day that the Navy can employ torpedo drills to prevent whales from inadvertently being harmed.
Schoelkopf said the center has been criticized by members of the public for not trying to help the Ocean City dolphin. But Schoelkopf said that animal appeared to be in good health in a lagoon that had a ready supply of fish, as evidenced by the cormorants that were feeding there.
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