Unusually High Number of Dolphin Strandings Raises Questions

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This year the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation has taken part in a record 64 marine-animal stranding responses on Long Island.

The previous record of 58 responses in 2007 has been shattered in part by an unusually high number of stranded bottlenose dolphins found dead or dying on beaches from the East End all the way to Virginia.

Rob Digiovanni, the executive director and chief biologist at the Riverhead Foundation, said that so far there’s “no real indication” of what’s causing the deaths. He labeled any speculation in regard to what’s causing the deaths “premature” due to the lack of evidence.

Officials at the State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection were less reserved in an August 1 press release that called the recent rash of dolphin deaths along the East Coast “part of a natural disease cycle,” citing the 1987 outbreak of a dolphin-borne disease called morbilivirus that killed almost 1,000 bottlenose dolphins. Morbilivirus has already been confirmed in one dolphin that was recovered by the New Jersey agency this year, and four others were confirmed to have died from pneumonia, which is a known symptom of morbilivirus.

According to Lisa King of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation press office, the Riverhead Foundation has confirmed to them that there is evidence of illness in the dolphins that have been recovered on Long Island. Although she didn’t specify what kind of illness, she said that the dolphins that have been recovered showed signs of weight loss and parasites. As to whether or not these symptoms are indicative of morbilivirus, in a prepared statement she said the Riverhead Foundation is still “waiting for test results.”

If any stranded animal is found on the beach, Mr. Digiovanni advised the public not to approach the animal, but to call the 24-hour emergency stranding hotline for the Riverhead Foundation at (631) 369-9829. The response teams, which consist of staff and trained volunteers, will assess the situation. According to the Riverhead Foundation’s website, “Every attempt is made to rehabilitate and release live stranded animals back to the wild.”

The Riverhead Foundation responds to calls for a variety of animals from whales to seals, and if the call is for a live animal, they often rescue, rehabilitate and release it. For example “Doc,” a juvenile Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, was rescued in December 2012 in Sag Harbor and was released in Hampton Bays this past January.

Though the Riverhead Foundation does have a dolphin rehabilitation program, it has only one tank, which is currently occupied by Roxanne, a 9-foot, adult female Risso’s dolphin. Roxanne was rescued off a sandbar in Babylon on June 6, 2013. She was found to be suffering from dehydration and gastric bleeding, but has since been completely rehabilitated and is awaiting release, which has been delayed due to funding issues.

Unfortunately, since the dolphin tank is occupied, even if responders from the Riverhead Foundation get to the dolphins before they’re dead, there are “not a lot of options,” said Mr. Digiovanni. Of the two dolphins that the Riverhead Foundation have found alive this year, one died prior to arrival in Riverhead and the other was euthanized.

As for the lack of resources, Mr. Digiovanni noted the “huge cost that goes with rehabilitating dolphins” as well as the lack of funding.

The John H. Prescott Rescue Assistance Program, a grant program that Mr. Digiovanni said accounted for 10 percent of the Riverhead Foundation’s operating budget and is “critical” to stranding programs across the United States, was defunded by Congress last year. Before its defunding, the program gave yearly grants of up to $100,000 to stranding programs. With the grants gone, the Riverhead Foundation is that much more reliant on its yearly benefits like the 5K Run for Ridley, and its large volunteer program.

“If you really want to help out, get involved with our volunteer program,” said Mr. Digiovanni, who added that volunteers gave more than 15,000 man hours last year. Those looking to get involved can get more information by visiting RiverheadFoundation.org.

In addition to reporting stranded or injured animals, Mr. Digiovanni encouraged individuals who see live, healthy animals floating around in the water to call the foundation with the location and any other details. According to Mr. Digiovanni, information from the public keeps the foundation more “dialed into what we’re doing” and helps it “serve the animals better.”

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