We don't yet know what's killing dolphins along the East Coast. But we do know that an unusual number of dead and dying dolphins have been found from New York to Virginia this summer. And we know something else: The answer to this question may come, in part, because of the work of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.
Since 1978, the staff and volunteers of the stranding center have been rescuing dolphins, porpoises, seals, turtles and other marine animals on New Jersey's beaches. They have also been removing and examining dead animals, providing valuable data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1987, that data helped determine that a measle-like virus called morbillivirus was responsible for killing 750 dolphins along the East Coast.
And since 1978, the center has struggled to find adequate financing. This year, donations are down and expenses are up - the need to pay for examinations of lots of dead animals has strained the center's resources. Actually, with an annual budget of about $650,000, the center's finances are perpetually strained. Repairs from Hurricane Sandy and even the cost of replacing a van can break the meager budget.
The center has become nationally known for its work. In 1983 it relocated to a bayside site in Brigantine and has become a tourist attraction, bringing in thousands of visitors each year.
Which makes it all the more strange that this tiny operation with a big impact has never had a stable source of funding. Unlike similar organizations in other states, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center does not have the support of a large aquarium or university. It depends on grants and donations. Federal Prescott grants, which at one time supplied as much as a quarter of the center's income, have been defunded.
On Thursday, NOAA declared the bottlenose dolphin deaths an "Unusual Mortality Event," which means the federal government will pay some of the associated costs. That helps, but it doesn't solve the center's budget problems.
Marine mammals, especially dolphins, have a special appeal to shore residents and visitors. The sight of a pod of dolphins swimming by is an exciting reminder of how close we are to a world of wildlife. The presence of these intelligent, social creatures is also a good indication of the health of the ocean.
In a state where millions of dollars are being spent this month for an unnecessary special Senate election, the amount needed to support the stranding center would be a minor expense.
The state could certainly afford to help fund a lean operation that provides so much in service to marine animals and in good public relations for the Jersey Shore.
The center's annual "Dancing with Dolphins" fundraiser is being held tonight, and it deserves support from the local community. But the best support the stranding center could receive would be more funding from the state.