The federal agency tasked with overseeing fisheries policy will step in
to investigate a recent die-off of bottlenose dolphins between New York
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration's (NOAA) fisheries division has formally declared the
die-off of 124 dolphins an "unusual mortality event," triggering a
federal response which could include funding for investigative teams and
support agencies to determine its cause.
"There are no smoking
guns," said Susan Barco, research coordinator and senior scientist at
the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. "We have only seen
three fresh animals; most of the animals have been decomposed."
bulk of the dolphins that have become stranded – 89 in July and 35 so
far in August – were in Virginia, mainly on the shores of Chesapeake
Bay. The ocean beaches of the Jersey Shore were a close second, data
showed. All of the dolphins, including seven that were still alive when
found, have died or were euthanized.
New Jersey has seen more than 20 dolphin strandings so far this year, compared to less than five in all of 2012.
are looking into a number of factors, including environmental causes
such as water quality, to determine the reasons behind the die-off,
however their efforts are centering on morbillivirus, a naturally
occurring virus in dolphin populations, according to the New Jersey
Department of Environmental Protection.
The virus was linked to
the deaths of 90 dolphins in 1987 off New Jersey, according to DEP
figures. So far, one dolphin in New Jersey tested positive for
In the 1987, the die-off lasted through March of
1988, said Teri Rowles, national marine mammal stranding coordinator for
"Morbilivrius, we know historically, has been the cause of large epidemics of dolphins across the globe," said Rowles.
far, the dolphins that have been affected have mainly been those that
live in inshore waters, said Lance Garrison, an NOAA Fisheries research
biologist. A population of dolphins that remain offshore in water more
than 50 meters deep have not seemed to have been affected.
dolphins which can currently be found in New Jersey's waters are part of
a norther migratory group that will eventually head south to the waters
off the Carolinas in late September and early October, said Garrison
They will replace a southern migratory population that is currently
living off Virginia and in Chesapeake Bay.
"Determining which of those stocks are primarily affected will be part of the ongoing investigation," Garrison said.
now, experts are advising those who encounter a stranded or deceased
dolphin to stay away from it and call a federal stranding hotline or a
local stranding agency.
"We will be conscious of looking for and
detecting any pathogens or toxins that could be concerned to people,
whether it be on the beach or in seafood," said Rowles. "Marine mammals
do share pathogens with people, as well as dogs and cats."
Jersey residents who come upon a dead or dying dolphin are being asked
to contact the Brigantine-based Marine Mammal Stranding Center's 24-hour
hotline at 609-266-0538.