It has been a slow year in the aquatic mammal recovery business at the Jersey Shore, and the folks who do that often grim work aren’t complaining.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine had rescued 115 mammals as of Aug. 15, down from the usual 150 to 180 by this point in the year, director Bob Schoelkopf said.
“Which we were happy for,” he said.
The center — which helps whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and seals that are injured, dead, or dying — is the only organization authorized by New Jersey to rescue distressed marine mammals. There are similar centers in Baltimore and scattered throughout New England.
Why are things so slow?
Hard to say.
”Could be the weather,” Schoelkopf said. “Could be food.”
”Could be a lot of things,” said Mackenzie Peacock, a technician on the center’s three-person recovery team and self-described EMT for mammals. “It could be climate change.”
In the summer, the center typically rescues turtles and dolphins. But few dolphins have been seen lately, aside from the occasional old dolphin that dies and washes up on the beach. “Or a newborn that can’t keep up with the herd and comes ashore,” Schoelkopf said. “Mainly it’s turtle calls that we’re getting.”
In North Jersey recently, a sea turtle was found having been hit by a boat propeller and then eaten by sharks.
“Once it’s hit by a boat, it’s wounded, and the sharks home in on the blood and start chewing it up,” Schoelkopf said. “I’ve had quite a few the past week or so that came down the Delaware Bay minus extremities. Shark just chewed everything — head, flippers, everything. Just left the shell.”
The rescues and recoveries so far this month include a dead dolphin and a dead whale.
At the beginning of August, the center got a call for recovery and burial of a dead dolphin near the Ocean City-Longport Bridge. “It was a very decomposed animal,” Schoelkopf said. The recovery team couldn’t establish a cause of death. “The thing was nothing but mush,” he said. “You could barely tell it was a dolphin.”
Then on Aug. 9, the technicians recovered a dead 62-foot fin whale in the Newark Bay that most likely had been struck by a container ship. They buried it in the sand.
The year’s low stranding numbers include fish.
“Even the sharks that people usually start complaining about washing up on the beach,” Schoelkopf added, “we haven’t seen large numbers of those coming in.”
Schoelkopf and his wife, Sheila Dean, founded the Stranding Center in 1978, and have hosted the private, nonprofit marine veterinary-care center on a half-acre lot on Brigantine Boulevard since 1985. It is funded mostly through private donations.
What started with saltwater tanks and a holding pool has grown to include rehabilitation buildings and pools for the animals as well as a small museum and gift shop.
The center has responded to nearly 6,000 marine mammal strandings along the East Coast. Through the years, Schoelkopf has noted a change in the types of mammals that have passed through, which he said could be due to climate change. Harp seals, once prevalent in the seas around New Jersey, have all but disappeared, whereas manatees were not seen 20 years ago but have been coming north.
A contemporary in the north is the New York Marine Rescue Center, a 25-year-old nonprofit that responds to calls for stranded marine mammals and sea turtles in its own state. And so far this year, its numbers are down as well.
In total for 2020, the rescue center fielded 2,247 calls, and responded to 114.
So far in 2021, the rescue center has fielded 1,022 calls, and responded to 69, as of Aug. 17.
Maxine Montello, the rescue program director, said the decrease is most seen in seal cases. And she considers 2020 an outlier, pointing to the scores of plague-panicked Manhattanites who fled for Long Island, where the rescue center is based. And almost immediately, she said, the refugees upset seal season.
“People touching seals on the beach and trying to pick them up and trying to offer them food. We had people pull them back into the water,” Montello said. “We deem these human-interaction cases. They’re not necessarily stranded because they’re sick or are dehydrated, but it’s more they’re stranded because of a human.”
Melissa Laurino, a biology professor at Stockton University in Galloway Township who spends the summer whale and dolphin watching off the coast of Cape May, said she still sees plenty of those mammals on her daily boat rides.
“Nothing really stands out this season,” she said.
According to Mark Sullivan, associate professor of marine science at Stockton, ocean warming has led to major shifts in fish species.
“The Gulf of Maine … is warming faster than almost any other ocean region around the globe,” Sullivan wrote in an email. “Reports of black sea bass are becoming more common in the Gulf of Maine, while traditionally southern species are making appearances in New Jersey waters. Keeping long-term scientific data sets active is critical for better understanding the impacts of ocean warming on commercially and recreationally managed species.”
Peacock takes the low number in stride.
“Seals we usually see down here are pups,” she said. “So they’ll pop up in Maine, and then swim down here, and then when weather changes and summer starts to hit, they’ll go back up north. Could have been a slow pupping season. It could have been they just didn’t want to come down here.”
“Maybe the mammals just don’t need our help,” she said. “But we’re on standby.”