BRIGANTINE, N.J. - Dolphins, whales, seals, and other marine animals are the "canaries in the coal mine" for those who study the health of the nation's oceans and waterways.
When one of the creatures washes ashore, ill, malnourished, or dead, it's like a siren going off.
In a budget-balancing move, federal lawmakers are considering cutting funds to several programs dedicated to ensuring a swimmable ocean and healthy marine ecosystem. Among the cuts in President Obama's proposed 2013 budget is eliminating all funds to the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program.
Established by Congress in 2000 and administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the grants aid groups involved in collecting and distributing data about health trends in wild marine-mammal populations.
The program, which the NOAA wishes to remain authorized, received $4 million in the current fiscal year. Without it, the agency would have to rely on private groups to aid in the rescue of marine mammals, it said in its budget recommendation.
"We cannot continue to do everything at a reduced level," the NOAA said in its constituent budget briefing. And eliminating the Prescott money may mean "a diminished capacity to respond to stranding events, especially in the short term as grants expire and new partners come on line."
But, the NOAA said, "we must make tough choices."
The nonprofit Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Atlantic County is the only agency charged with rescuing or recovering such animals along New Jersey's 1,800-mile Atlantic and Delaware Bay coastline.
The center could lose $100,000 in Prescott money - a significant portion of its $650,000 annual budget, which relies heavily on grants and donations.
Some coastal states have up to a half-dozen agencies to handle marine mammals in need of assistance. But in the Garden State, the Brigantine center does it all, said Bob Schoelkopf, its founder and director. The group's most recent high-profile work occurred in January when a dead fin whale washed ashore in Ocean City.
"This funding is vitally important in helping us do what we do," Schoelkopf said.
Without an agency that can respond to strandings and wash-ups on a 24/7 basis, significant health hazards could occur in an area as populated as New Jersey, he said.
The center has handled more than 3,800 strandings since it was established in 1978 by Schoelkopf and his wife, Sheila Dean. With a half-dozen paid employees - including a veterinarian and three technicians - and about 300 trained volunteers, the center also provides rehab for injured and sick marine mammals and does necropsies and disposals of animals that do not make it.
As funding has gotten tighter, the center has had to restrict its range. In the past, it has responded to requests from New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.
"Pennsylvania has no money at all in its budget for strandings," Schoelkopf said.
Rehab costs eat up a significant amount of money - Schoelkopf just wrote a check for $16,000 to pay for frozen fish to feed the ailing seals that often wash ashore. So do manpower, travel, insurance, trucks and boats, and other equipment used in rescues.
In recent years, Schoelkopf has opened the center to the public to raise money through paid tours of the museum, education center, and gift shop at the Brigantine Boulevard compound. The center's rehab and laboratory areas remain restricted.
Schoelkopf said he hoped to have an ally in U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), who cosponsored the Prescott grant legislation in Congress.
"The congressman is very supportive of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center," said Jason Galanes, a spokesman for LoBiondo. He "will be paying very close attention to the Prescott funding issue."