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article imageNJ River Dolphins Debate May Have Ended Tragically

By Joan Firstenberg     Jan 19, 2009 in Environment
A pack of wayward dolphins, who wound up in New Jersey shore rivers last June, are believed to have all died from the cold. And locals are fighting mad that the feds never authorized an intervention to save them.
Fears are mounting that the 16 bottlenose dolphins who unexpectedly arrived in the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers near the Jersey Shore in June may be dead. Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey says he's afraid the last five dolphins who had recently been spotted are dead.
He says the reasons include an increasing buildup of ice on the rivers, coupled with the fact that no one has seen the dolphins since Thursday. Schoelkophf says he last spotted the dolphins last Tuesday, and they looked emaciated and weak at that time.
Schoelkopf has been the loudest voice calling on federal wildlife officials to authorize an intervention to get the dolphins out of the river and back out to sea.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has repeatedly said that trying to coax or scare the dolphins from the river would be risky and probably wouldn't work The agency said early on that its thinking was that the dolphins may have been trying to expand their habitat, something that shouldn't be interfered with even if it meant letting them die.
The pod of 16 dolphins arrived in the two rivers in June, thrilling onlookers as they frolicked in the waves and gorged themselves on plentiful bait fish. But three of the dolphins died early on. And Federal officials say they believed the other eight may have left the rivers on their own for new waters, but there was no way to know for sure.
Mr. Schoelkopf is very unhappy. He began calling for a federal rescue attempt as soon as the Dolphins appeared. He cited the 1993 case of four dolphins who drowned in the Shrewsbury when ice closed in on them and a rescue attempt that he considers too late actually chased them under the ice.
Dolphins must surface periodically in order to breathe air.
One thing federal wildlife officials didn't count on is what's called the "Flipper Factor" , which is the intense, emotional attachment that many people have toward dolphins. Dolphins are not only extremely intelligent, and social, but their facial anatomy makes them look like they are smiling at you.
NOAA has said many times that trying to move the dolphins has its own risks and probably wouldn't ensure the animals' survival. Teri Frady, a NOAA spokeswoman says,
"There is a very strong connection a lot of people feel with the animals. If you believe that these animals are trapped or can't get out, then I can completely understand why people want us to move them. Our real job is to help people understand that we don't think they're trapped, and that actually trying to move them can cause fatalities rather than improving their prospects for survival."
This tug-of-war over rescuing animals has happened before between outraged citizens and the feds. In June of 2001, a 50-ton white whale called Churchill got tangled in fishing gear in the Atlantic Ocean off Massachusetts, spurring a three-month rescue effort that included seven unsuccessful tries to save the animal. Rescue groups and the federal government spent more than $250,000 on the effort, which failed when Churchill died that September. Frady, who was part of NOAA's handling of that case, says
"People from all over the world were calling about the whale.".
This isn't just an American story. In 1985, the Soviet Union sent an icebreaker to free thousands of white beluga whales that had been trapped by ice in the Senyavin Strait, about 130 miles from the Alaskan coast. Helicopters and experts were sent in and villagers brought frozen fish to feed the whales.
Royal navy divers in England freed a humpback whale from fishing gear in 2006 near the Isle of Skye. And just before Christmas last year dozens of volunteers in McBride, Canada, spent a week digging a passageway through snowdrifts to rescue a pair of starving, ice-covered horses abandoned on a mountain and actually succeeded in getting them free.
Scientists, unlike those who simply love animals, mostly agreed that the dolphins should be left to their own instincts. Thomas Armbruster, the director of the Sandy Hook Sea Life Foundation says,
"From past attempts to rescue these animals, there has been more harm done to the animals. These animals should be left alone."
Frank Baran, a local resident who sometimes stops by the river to look for the dolphins, agrees.
"They know what they're doing.. They've been here a long time, and they'll be around for a long time."
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