Another dolphin carcass has washed ashore, this time in Margate, as the state Department of Environmental Protection announced it is assisting the investigation into a string of dolphin deaths in New Jersey and nearby states.

The 21st dolphin to wash ashore in New Jersey since July 9 was found Thursday morning at the Douglas Avenue beach in Margate.

The dolphin, which likely had been dead between two and three days, had been partially eaten by a shark and appeared also to have been struck by a boat propeller, Marine Mammal Stranding Center Co-director Bob Schoelkopf said.

Earlier this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an alert to stranding centers in the Mid-Atlantic region, asking them to be on the lookout for any dolphin deaths and also to include additional tests in necropsies to help scientists determine the cause.

On Thursday, the DEP said the deaths appear to be linked to a natural disease cycle, not water-quality issues, spokesman Larry Hajna said.

The agency's Division of Fish and Wildlife will help the stranding center as best it can by providing boats and other assistance, Hajna said. Of the dolphins that had died, 20 were Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and one was a common dolphin, the DEP said in a news release.

Four of the dolphins had died from viral pneumonia, but other tests are pending. Schoelkopf said scientists need to see all the test results first before fully understanding what is causing the deaths. However, he said in a news release, "There is no evidence that the deaths we are seeing this summer are in any way related to water quality."

Additional dead dolphins have been spotted floating offshore by fishermen, but the stranding center is only keeping count of the ones brought into the center, Schoelkopf said. In addition to the 21 dolphins that have washed ashore, Schoelkopf said he had received reports of four dead dolphins floating off Barnegat Light and one floating off the coast of Cape May. However, those dolphins likely will not make it to shore because they most likely will be eaten by other wildlife, he said.

Necropsy results for one dolphin found in Seaside Park was confirmed to have a virus that was responsible for a mass die-off in 1987, Schoelkopf said. The morbillivirus, a virus similar to measles, killed nearly 750 dolphins between New Jersey and Florida.

Dolphins are social animals that swim close together in pods, which makes it easy for some diseases to spread.

Commercial fishermen may also be catching the dead dolphins in their nets, Schoelkopf said. Two of the dolphins that had been recovered had net marks on their bodies, but Schoelkopf said those marks were made after the dolphins already had died. A third dolphin had a large knife wound from its throat to stomach, which Schoelkopf also said had come after the animal was already dead. "I don't know why anyone would do that," he said.

In addition to the extra expenses of the necropsies, the van the stranding center uses to transport the animals to the Chester, Pa., facility broke down Wednesday evening. Mechanics are trying to determine whether the van, which the center also uses for its education programs, can be fixed.

Schoelkopf said the dolphin carcasses also likely are bringing sharks in closer to shore than normal and warned people from going in the water after the dolphins. "You need to tell people this is what sharks do to (the dolphins)," he said, pointing to the partially eaten and decomposing carcass the center was keeping in a specialized cooler. "That way they know they could be hurt if they go in after them."

Dominic Marchiani, 25, of the Margate Public Works Department, was collecting trash early Thursday when he and co-worker Matt Stopa, 25, saw what they thought might be a dolphin on the beach. They called the stranding center, which sent crews to collect the carcass.

"They told us that something else is killing it and (the sharks) are eating them like that," Marchiani said.

Anyone who sees a dead or dying dolphin on the beach or in the water should call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center's 24-hour hotline at 609-266-0538. Do not touch the dolphin, approach the animal or attempt to bring the animal to shore. Shoelkopf also warned people to keep pets and their children away from the carcasses.

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