BRIGANTINE — While many federal agencies that regulate wildlife stopped working during the government shutdown, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center continued to rescue and treat animals in waterways across the state.
The nonprofit rescue and rehabilitation center has a permit and authorization from the state and federal governments, but operates with its own paid staff and volunteers to respond to strandings of whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles.
All funding comes through donations, memberships and its own fundraising efforts.
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"I feel for the people that are being furloughed and can't collect a paycheck, but it doesn't affect what we're doing," founder Bob Schoelkopf said.
The center is looking after three seals it rescued during the shutdown from Beach Haven, Long Branch and Harvey Cedars.
Typically, the Stranding Center would also have to submit its final health report to the National Marine Fisheries Service when releasing an animal.
"They're not in touch with what’s going on with the animals,” Schoelkopf said. “We are."
It uses its own services to treat the animals and does not need to rely on government agencies to perform laboratory tests.
“We have our own lab. If we need to get testing, we still have alternative labs that we use,” Schoelkopf said.
Schoelkopf said they will most likely be able to release the seals back into the wild in another month.
"If the animal is ready and our veterinarian feels that the animal's health is sufficient to be released, then we will release them,” he said.
Schoelkopf said the Coast Guard, which has been affected by the shutdown, gives tracking information to the center because the organization has technology that can tell which direction larger marine animals such as whales may travel depending on wind and currents.
"That helps out so we can prepare by letting our volunteers in that predicted area (know) to be on the outlook for that animal coming ashore and set up a volunteer response when it does come up,” Schoelkopf said.
Although Coast Guard officers have not received money in their last two paychecks, Schoelkopf said they are still helping the center with this service.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was shuttered during the shutdown, offered services to some rescue agencies such as animal tracking, a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies.
The shutdown came at a particularly dangerous time for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which numbers about 411, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with Whale and Dolphin Conservation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The whales are under tight scrutiny right now because of recent years of high mortality and poor reproduction.
NOAA recently identified an aggregation of 100 of the whales south of Nantucket — nearly a quarter of the world's population — but the survey work has been interrupted by the shutdown, Asmutis-Silvia said. Surveys of rare whales are important for biologists who study the animals and so rescuers can have an idea of where they are located, she said. No right whale mortalities have been recorded so far in 2019, but there have been at least 20 since April 2017.
"There's a really significant impact on marine mammal conservation based on this shutdown," Asmutis-Silvia said. "We have little to no ability to find them because of NOAA's being furloughed."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.