Stranding Center Challenges

Danielle Monaghan, Field Stranding Technician, with a seal at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, in Brigantine, Thursday August 1, 2013.

Vernon Ogrodnek

As the Marine Mammal Stranding Center continues to respond to the ongoing dolphin deaths caused by a virus, it has received two grants to help pay for its other mission: education.

The center, located in Brigantine, received a $14,675 grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to help pay for camera equipment for distance learning in Atlantic City schools. The grant will be paired with another from South Jersey Industries so that schoolchildren throughout South Jersey can watch the animals at the center from their classrooms and even ask center staff questions.

Educating the public, especially children, about marine mammals is one of the center's core missions, co-Director Sheila Dean said. "What we're trying to do is get as many free programs out there to the underserved school districts throughout southern New Jersey," she said.

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Dean said ultimately she hopes there are days when classrooms can tune into the activities at the center, including when the center's veterinarian is tending to animals, so they can ask questions in real time.

The grant comes as the stranding center continues to respond to the morbillivirus outbreak, in which 95 dolphins have washed up dead or dying since July 1 in New Jersey. As of Monday, 503 dolphins have washed up dead or dying between New York and North Carolina, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration statistics.

Late last week, the number of dolphins that have died in New Jersey exceeded that of the morbillivirus outbreak in 1987, which killed 93 dolphins in the state. That outbreak officially killed 742 dolphins, but NOAA researchers said the number was likely much higher because not all animals washed ashore and beaches then were not as well monitored.

Bob Schoelkopf, the center's founding director, said he expects New Jersey's total to continue to climb until the dolphins begin migrating south. That will happen likely toward the end of this month as the weather changes, the water temperature drops and the dolphins' food sources move south.

"We're still watching dolphins come up and we're seeing activity offshore, so they're feeding and they haven't moved south yet," he said.

NOAA, which designated the outbreak an "unusual mortality event" in August, has given New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection funding to cover the cost of the necropsies, which the state now is conducting at its Department of Agriculture lab in Ewing, Mercer County.

Prior to the Aug. 29 announcement that the state would handle necropsies and aid in the investigation, the stranding center was driving the carcasses to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. So many dolphins have died that the center used part of its remaining federal grant money to hire a driver part-time to ensure the carcasses were taken for necropsies as quickly as possible, Schoelkopf said.

Schoelkopf said the center is trying to purchase a refrigeration truck to help with the crisis. The current cooler holds only two animals and recently broke down, costing $1,300 to fix, he said.

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