The Christie Administration today directed additional state resources toward the investigation of bottlenose dolphin deaths along the coast of New Jersey that are part of what federal officials suspect is a naturally occurring disease cycle affecting populations of these marine mammals from New York to Virginia.
These steps include using Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) aircraft and expanding patrols by DEP conservation officers. The Administration is also providing the use of a Department of Agriculture lab for testing, a move that will greatly help the nonprofit Marine Mammal Stranding Center, on the front lines of responding to the deaths since early July.
"Fortunately, the federal investigation into the dolphin deaths is making significant progress," DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said. "The Christie Administration is committed to doing everything we can to assist in this investigation, and to helping the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in their work to respond to this sad situation." The DEP will pay for the testing at the Department of Agriculture's Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Ewing Township.
The Brigantine-based Marine Mammal Stranding Center had been taking the animals to a University of Pennsylvania veterinary facility, paying for the cost of testing from its own resources. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), through a Joint Enforcement Agreement with New Jersey, is providing the DEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife nearly $92,000 to increase land and boat patrols to assist in the monitoring and recovery of bottlenose dolphins.
In addition, the DEP's coastal surveillance flights, which are conducted as part of the state's water quality monitoring effort, has expanded its mission to look for stranded dolphins in the ocean and will coordinate observations with the Marine Mammal Stranding Center and DEP's Fish and Wildlife Conservation officers for potential recoveries. The DEP will extend these flights to continue searching for dolphins beyond the normal summer water monitoring season. Recovered dolphins will be taken to the Department of Agriculture's Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Ewing.
"The Department of Agriculture's Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory is a state-of-the-art facility that is well-equipped to handle testing of large animals," said New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher. "We are eager to do whatever we can to assist in the investigation of what has been sickening and killing the dolphins. " The Marine Mammal Stranding Center is part of NOAA's Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
"While we hope the disease cycle is reaching its peak in New Jersey, we really don't know how much longer this situation will continue," said Bob Schoelkopf, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center's Executive Director. "We are extremely appreciative for all of this assistance, which will relieve a great deal of pressure on our small organization."
Since July 9, 74 dead or dying dolphins have washed up along New Jersey's coastline. Twelve have been confirmed with morbillivirus, according to Schoelkopf. Another 21 have been tested for the virus, with results of those tests pending. NOAA has declared an Unusual Mortality Event due to the deaths of hundreds of dolphins off the East Coast, and this week announced that cetacean morbillivirus - which is similar to measles in humans or canine distemper in dogs - is the likely cause of the deaths.
The virus was behind a similar die-off in 1987-1988. NOAA continues to investigate if any other factors are contributing to this summer's die-off. To date, NOAA has determined that 32 dolphins tested from all five states are either suspected or confirmed positive for morbillivirus.
For 11 samples, genetic sequencing has confirmed this finding. Morbilliviruses are naturally occurring pathogens in marine mammal populations, and because these viruses suppress the immune system, many animals ultimately die from secondary infections, according to NOAA Fisheries. Not all dolphins exposed to morbillivirus will die from these infections, but a large proportion may not survive.
Morbilliviruses are usually spread through the air or direct contact between animals, including between mothers and young. Cetacean morbillivirus affects the lungs, brain and immune system of dolphins, causing illness and death. While this virus can easily spread among dolphin populations since the animals are highly social, it is not infectious to humans. The DEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife will continue to assist the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in recovery of dolphins for testing and/or disposal, and continues to work with the Stranding Center on tracking the die-off.
"We are offering whatever assistance we can, including the use of our conservation officers and our boats to recover dolphins," said Division of Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Chief Mark Chicketano. "There is a risk to the public of contracting a secondary pathogen from a dead or dying dolphin. We continue to advise the public not to approach or try to help a stranded or dead dolphin, but to let the experts retrieve the animal."
The state's Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program, a joint state, local and federal effort, conducts routine testing of bathing beaches. Water quality has been excellent, with no closures of ocean beaches due to elevated bacteria levels this year Noting that there's an increased risk of sharks feeding on dead or dying dolphins, Schoelkopf strongly cautioned the public not to approach the animals or attempt to bring them ashore.
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