As co-founder of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, Director Bob Schoelkopf has watched animal populations increase, while it has been a struggle to keep up with the money needed to support New Jersey’s sole facility authorized to rescue and care for marine mammals and sea turtles. The center opened 34 years ago in Atlantic City’s Gardner’s Basin but moved to Brigantine 28 years ago.

Q. What type of role does the Marine Mammal Stranding Center play in New Jersey?

A. The stranding center is important to New Jersey because we are the only (organization) in the state that is federally authorized to pick up these animals. They all are federally protected animals, marine mammals and sea turtles as well, so we respond to those animals to determine if they’re injured, what’s wrong with them, how can we recover those animals, rehabilitate them and turn them loose in the wild again. The dead animals, of course, we have to find out why they’re dead. Were they hit by a boat? Were they shot by somebody? Were they caught in fishing line, or did they swallow hooks? This is all important information. It goes to the federal government for an overall picture of the health of the marine mammals and sea turtles in the world.

Q. Is that impact felt elsewhere along the East Coast?

A. We’ve done strandings from Maine all the way down to North Carolina and actually had animals sent to us from Florida for rehab, since Florida is not a known destination of seals, for the most part. So those facilities handle turtles and dolphins, (and they) had no idea what to do with seals, so they actually ship them to us so we can rehab them.

Q. What would be the impact if there were no stranding center?

A. The impact of not having us available here in New Jersey would be a lot of animals lying on the beach slowly dying or people deciding they would do their own thing and taking the animals home for treatment and then have them die. Actually, we’re seeing more and more people trying to pick these animals up, especially baby seals, and then they get bitten and we’re responsible now for holding that healthy seal in quarantine until that person recovers from the bite.

Q. What do you think your personal impact as the director of the stranding center has been in New Jersey and beyond?

A. I feel like I initiated a program that wasn’t found in New Jersey before, as far as a rehab facility. But actually being around for 34 years, doing this, we’ve learned different methods of capture techniques. I invented a net that’s used for seals, especially to keep them from hurting their mouth from biting the net or anything like that. It’s a very simple tool that’s now used worldwide. We’ve learned over those periods of time how best to recover those animals, how to rehab them, and our rehab numbers are over 90 percent. We’re very pleased with that, and we’ve worked very hard to keep those numbers up so we can get a larger percentage back in the wild.

Q. In the 34 years the center has been in operation, what have been the biggest successes?

A. After 34 years, I think the success is the 90 percent recovery rate. The fact that we’re able to teach so many people in the state to be our volunteers — they are our eyes, they go out on the beaches first. They call us when they see something. We have a stranding course that we teach so that they know what to do when they go on the beach, and that helps us out. Before we even leave the stranding center, we have photos of the animal, we have a history of that animal and we can see what’s going on before we even respond.

Q. What have been the failures?

A. I think the biggest failure we’ve had is the fact that we don’t have the room we really need to expand. The stranding numbers have gone up over the years, so we’re fixed in our location, in the number of buildings that we can put up and the number of tanks. It’s a challenge because we have to keep moving animals and, when they’re healthy enough, getting them out, getting them oriented. So it’s very trying during the winter months to keep this flow of animals going. We can’t just release them. They have to be healthy first.

Q. How has the center’s mission and scope changed since opening your doors?

A. The mission of the center has always been the same: to rescue, rehabilitate and release. The change comes in the number of animals that we’ve handled. We’ve done over 4,000 animals. We’ve had early days of six to seven animals a year to, right now, we’re up to over 100 animals for nine months of the year. Last year, we finished with about 180 animals, so those numbers are always up there. There’s always a challenge, and you can’t tell a typical stranding is this or that because there is no typical stranding.

Q. What does the center hope to accomplish in the next five years?

A. Well, we’d like to make sure the center continues to operate (and) we have the funding coming in to do that operation. That’s the most critical part for us right now because of the loss of donations over the past couple of years; it’s critical to buy food and medicine. A lot of the facilities similar to ours are supported by universities or aquariums. We’re solely supported by the sales from our gift shop here, and memberships and special fundraisers like the golf outing.

Q. Where does the center’s funding come from, and what does your budget pay for?

A. Our budget is roughly $650,000 a year. That covers salaries, that covers $65,000 a year in insurance costs. We have two boats to insure, four vehicles, all the staff, workman’s comp. All of this is consumed by us. As I said, the other facilities in other states are covered by universities or aquariums. They pick up on that cost. Facility costs here, it’s all on us. So the membership, the sponsorship that we just received this spring by The Atlantic Club, helping us out with the big-screen TV donation and backing us with special fundraising opportunities there, that’s a really big help to us and, of course, the golf outing. That’s going to be needed for the food. Last year alone we spent $16,000 just on food for the animals, not to mention the medical costs, transportation costs, which is really going sky high, that (Ford) 550 (truck) we use for larger animals only gets seven miles to the gallon, so that is a quite costly part of our budget right now.

Q. How much of a challenge do proposed federal budget cuts play in keeping the center operating?

A. Well, as I mentioned, of the $100,000 we get from the budget we get from the federal grant, $65,000 of that is spent just on insurance, not to mention salaries for the veterinarian, travel expenses, equipment, maintenance and upkeep of the facility is far higher than what we see in that proposed budget cut coming up.

Q. Could those budget cuts cause a reduction in service?

A. We would say no because then we wouldn’t be doing our mission to help rescue those animals. It may result in us laying off personnel, but at this time that’s even worse because we need as many as we can get. In fact, we could use even more staff right now. We just don’t have the money to pay for them.

Q. What are the biggest obstacles facing the center day to day?

A. Probably the financial outcome of the center. How we keep money coming every month is a challenge. We are very careful in how we spend the money, where we use it, where we look for grants and private donations and bequeathments, that helps us quite a bit. But we can never count on that, because we don’t know when that’s coming in or the number or volume of animals that are going to be alive versus dead.

Q. How big of a role do volunteers play in the center’s mission?

A. Volunteers are the center. We need those people. They cover the entire coast of New Jersey. When an animal gets called in to us by the police department or the Coast Guard, we’ll go through our volunteer list, call the people who live within 15 minutes of that stranding area. They respond, and they immediately get back to us by phone and with photos of the animals to expedite the recovery, so we know what equipment to take. Looking at the photo tells us if we even need to pick up the animal, how healthy it is. And without the volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to operate with only four people on our payroll.

Q. One of the proposals for adding to the Atlantic City Tourism District has been to move the stranding center back to Gardner’s Basin. What do you think about that proposal?

A. At this time, we just renewed our lease with the city of Brigantine and we’re quite happy and the residents of Brigantine have been supporting us. We’re hoping to add just a little bit more space here and update our equipment, so at this point in time, we’re very happy being where we are.

Q. If you were to move to Gardner’s Basin, what would be the costs and benefits versus staying in Brigantine?

A. Any move we make outside of Brigantine or to new property in Brigantine would have to be at least a $3 million cost in building. We build it as simply as possible to do the most important part of our job, which uses water, so we’d have to be close to the water for water supply. The only way we could do that is starting from the ground up, brand new, and that’s a cost we can’t afford right now.

Q. Does the center provide a home for research to be conducted? If so, what has been studied and learned? If not, would you like research capabilities to be added to the center’s mission?

A. We’re not a research facility. We’re a rehabilitation facility. Research comes from what we produced in our data collection, what we find with these animals. If we find an animal with an unusual disease, that’s all passed on to the researchers. That’s not our job. Research is a primary function in other parts of the state. Right now we have enough problems doing rehabilitation. Doing research is not at the top of our priority list.

Contact Sarah Watson:

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