SEA BRIGHT, N.J. - Environmentalists and lawmakers want the state to suspend construction work on the Route 36 bridge during the holidays so New Jersey's wayward dolphins have a chance to pass underneath it and go out to open water.
They contend the animals are in imminent danger, but the state Department of Transportation says it has no plans to halt work on the span.
The Surfers' Environmental Alliance and Clean Ocean Action, along with State Sen. Sean Kean (R., Wall), proposed the plan at a news conference yesterday along the Shrewsbury River, where part of a group of bottlenose dolphins has been staying since June.
"It is our instinct-based local knowledge that leads us to believe that these dolphins are in imminent danger," said Andrew Mencinsky, the surfers' group executive director who lives near the Shrewsbury River and sees the dolphins nearly every day.
The dolphins are at the center of a tug-of-war between federal wildlife officials - who plan to leave them alone unless they appear to be in imminent danger - and animal rescuers who want them either removed or coaxed out of the river and back out to sea.
The rescuers cite several previous instances in which dolphins took a wrong turn, ended up in the river and died when weather got too cold.
The groups called on the Transportation Department to shut down repair work on the bridge between Sea Bright and Highlands from Dec. 22 to Jan. 1. The break in pile driving and jackhammering - sounds that were recorded by underwater microphones a mile and a half away from the bridge - might encourage the dolphins to swim back out under the bridge into Sandy Hook Bay and then to the ocean, the groups said.
But in a conference call this week, federal wildlife experts said the dolphins do not appear to be bothered by the construction sounds. They said the 12 remaining dolphins appear to be healthy and acting normally.
Mencinsky disagreed, saying he watched the dolphins' move closer to the bridge this week while a pile driver was shut down for repairs.
"This morning, while the pile driver was back in action, the dolphins moved deeper into the river, away from the noise," he said. "Not a likely coincidence."
Kevin Monaco, a spokesman for the bridge contractor, J.H. Reid of South Plainfield, said the company is willing to halt work temporarily if it is likely to help coax the dolphins out to the ocean. However, it has no authority to stop work on its own.
Erin Phalon, a spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department, said there were no plans to stop work on the bridge. The department has taken precautions, including having a federal observer present at the site with the authority to temporarily halt work if the dolphins venture within about 550 yards of the bridge.
Kean said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's refusal to remove the dolphins from the Shrewsbury and Navesink Rivers "could be a death sentence."
He said the NOAA needs to consider "all available options to guide these animals back out to sea before the rivers freeze and icy conditions make it impossible for them to leave."
Mencinsky said the portion of the Shrewsbury where the dolphins have been staying has frozen solid four out of the last five winters.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., Long Branch) said that while federal officials believe the dolphins can survive the winter in New Jersey, "I am not as optimistic."