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700 dolphin deaths recorded in mid-Atlantic

6:03 AM, Oct 24, 2013   |    comments
A dolphin undergoes a necropsy at the University of Pennsylvania. (Photo: Photo courtesy of University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine)
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ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- More than 700 bottlenose dolphin deaths have been recorded in the mid-Atlantic since July, including 129 in New Jersey, but strandings have dropped a bit recently, experts said Wednesday.

"Hopefully, we'll continue to see this decrease in strandings, but we are prepared if it picks back up again for any reason," said Mendy Garron, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the Northeast at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Gloucester, Mass.

Officials "really don't know" if dolphin deaths will continue into next spring, although that's what happened during the last large East Coast die-off in 1987-88, she said.

Robert Schoelkopf, longtime director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, said, "We're hoping with this cold front coming through and the storm offshore that that might trigger (the dolphins) to move farther south."

More than 800 bottlenose dolphins have been found stranded from New York to North Carolina this year through Monday, and measles-like morbillivirus remains the most likely cause, according to NOAA Fisheries.

Garron said the dolphin death rate - more than 700 since July - is higher than in 1987, and NOAA has called it an "unusual mortality event."

The 129 dead bottlenose dolphins in New Jersey exceeds the 93 found by the end of September 1987, Schoelkopf said.

A couple of dolphins a week are being found dead in New Jersey now. Two more were found Tuesday: one in the Brant Beach section of Long Beach Township and the other in Brigantine, Schoelkopf said.

Garron said the dead dolphin count from New York through North Carolina declined from 38 during the week of Oct. 7 to 22 last week. The dolphins will start to head south, ranging from North Carolina to Florida, this winter, she said.

From June 1987 through May 1988, 742 dolphins were confirmed dead from New Jersey through Florida, according to a study published in 1994. Morbillivirus infections were confirmed during that die-off.

Of the 120 dolphins tested so far during this year's outbreak, morbillivirus has been confirmed or suspected in 110, according to NOAA.

"We're still examining the animals that are coming in," Garron said, "and we're gonna continue to do that," and deaths may increase as the dolphins start to move south.

Schoelkopf said he's hopeful the current die-off will end shortly in New Jersey and he doesn't think it will resume here in the spring.

"All the animals that are affected will be dead before next year's arrival," he said. "They'll be dying off in Southern states."

Todd B. Bates, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

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