Shortly after the first couple of dead or dying dolphins washed onto New Jersey beaches last month, Bob Schoelkopf had a feeling he knew what was happening — and it couldn’t come at a worse time for his cash-strapped Marine Mammal Stranding Center.

It looked like Morbillivirus, a virus related to measles. In 1987, the virus killed 90 dolphins in a three-month period in New Jersey and killed nearly 750 elsewhere along the East Coast.

“The minute (the dolphins) started coming in, there were similarities (to the 1987 outbreak,)” said Schoelkopf, founding director of the center in Brigantine.

The unusually high number of dolphin deaths, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is now investigating, have come as the stranding center is struggling with declining donations and costly emergencies.

Last week the center had to pay for expensive vehicle repairs and replace a van for about $17,000. Plus, there were several thousand dollars worth in Hurricane Sandy-related costs that insurance did not cover.

Initial lab results showed at least four of the 28 dolphins that have washed up in New Jersey had the morbillivirus, with lab tests pending for the rest of the carcasses, Schoelkopf said. Those four dolphins officially died from viral pneumonia, but most of the carcasses have been too far decomposed for a cause of death to be determined.

In July, 85 dolphins were recovered between New York and Virginia. Last July, nine dolphins washed up dead between New York and Virginia, and in 2011, that number was 16, NOAA statistics show. As of Tuesday, more than 100 dolphins have now washed up in Virginia.

There was a lull in the strandings in New Jersey over the past few days due to strong offshore winds. But experts worry as soon as the wind shifts, the numbers will increase again.

Managing the expenses related to the deaths is part of the mission for the various groups that respond to marine mammals in distress or pick up the remains off the beach. But for centers that have no large institution behind them, such as the Brigantine center, every cost adds up.

According to the center’s 2011 tax return — the most recent filed — expenses were nearly $640,000, nearly $55,000 more than in 2010. But donations and grant funding to the center plunged by more than a third. Contributions to the center totaled $605,000 in 2010, but were only $386,000 in 2011.

Prior to July 23, the necropsies cost between $75 and $100 — an expense that adds up quickly when multiplied by nearly two dozen animals. Last week NOAA sent an alert to stranding centers in the Mid-Atlantic, warning officials about the increase in dolphin deaths and requiring each necropsy to test for additional illnesses or potential causes.

Stranding center co-director Sheila Dean, Schoelkopf’s wife, said the bills have yet to arrive, but they expect the costs to increase.

“Everything you add on for them to do you have to pay for it. They’re not going to do it for free,” she said.

NOAA now is investigating what is causing Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to die and whether morbillivirus is the cause along the Mid-Atlantic coast. But the agency still is working to determine how severe the die-off is.

“Right now we’re looking at this situation to see if an unusual mortality event is going to be declared,” said spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus.

An “unusual mortality event” is rare. Only 59 have been declared nationwide since 1991 and a cause has been determined for only 29 of those die-offs.

A declaration by NOAA would attach federal dollars to help the stranding center pay for the increased workload and costs associated with the response, Mooney-Seus said.

That could be a help to the stranding center, but Schoelkopf said he was told any federal financial help would be limited because NOAA itself has a very tight budget.

In early 2012, NOAA proposed de-funding the Prescott grant program, which provided grants to dozens of stranding-response centers around the country. In previous years, the grants the Marine Mammal Stranding Center received at times constituted as much as a quarter of its funding.

The last Prescott grant the center received, in fiscal 2012, was more than $160,000. Between 2001 and 2010, the center received more than $850,000 in Prescott funding. The money over the years was used to replace a truck, train volunteers, buy a boat for water rescue and hire staff to care for the animals, according to a NOAA report on the program.

The grant program was not funded in fiscal 2013 and is unlikely to have money in fiscal 2014, NOAA documents show.

“We do have some Prescott money for (necropsies), but I can see that’s going to go flying out the window,” Dean said. The center also is still housing several seals it rescued over the winter, with one waiting to to be placed in a zoo because it cannot be released to the wild. Each seal costs about $15 to $30 per day in food costs.

Running out of money, Schoelkopf said, would mean the center does not operate and the stranding response would be handled by volunteers.

Since Hurricane Sandy struck Oct. 29, nonprofit groups and charities across New Jersey have struggled for donations. The donation pool the nonprofits have fought for shares of has shrunk due to ongoing economic conditions, and the need for financial help has risen.

“This is all the after-effects of Sandy. People are strapped for cash or they’re giving to other groups,” Dean said. “There’s a lot going on and every nonprofit has their hand out begging.”

And in the eyes of donors, Dean said, “Wildlife is always at the bottom of the bucket.”

The stranding center’s annual fundraiser, Dancing with Dolphins, is scheduled for Sunday. And Dean, who manages the fundraising aspect of the center, was struggling for items to use in the silent auction.

On Monday, she received surprising news. Lorenzo Borghese — an Italian prince, a former castmember on “The Bachelor” and all-around animal lover — had heard of the center’s struggles and the ongoing dolphin deaths.

He offered himself as a “date” to auction off on Sunday.

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Sunday fundraiser for the center

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center will hold its Dancing with Dolphins fundraiser from 7 to 10 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 11, at the Pier at Caesars, One Atlantic Ocean. The cost is $50 for center members and $75 for nonmembers, and includes an annual membership. The event includes live entertainment, appetizers, wine and a silent auction. For tickets, call 609-266-0538. Tickets also available at the door.

Been working with the Press for about 27 years.