Mystery Illness Keeps Killing Dolphins on Jersey Shore

Officials think the animals might be dying of viral pneumonia.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
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    Dolphins are mysteriously dying along New Jersey beaches, and the cause is a mystery.

    They have been found in Seaside Heights, Long Beach Island and other locations, bringing the total number found on the Jersey shore to 58 since since July 9.

    Director Robert Schoelkopf of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center tells The Press of Atlantic City the dolphins appear to be dying of viral pneumonia, but the cause is unknown.

    Researchers are investigating what may have killed more than 124 dolphins found stranded in coastal areas in the Mid-Atlantic region since July — seven times the historic average, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said. All but seven of the dolphins were already dead when they were discovered, and each of those eventually died or had to be euthanized.

    It isn't clear whether an infectious disease is causing the deaths; scientists plan to test blood and tissue for viruses, bacteria, fungi and biotoxins, among other things. But humans and marine mammals do share common pathogens, and anyone who finds a dead dolphin is being urged to stay away from it and contact authorities.

    The discoveries have led the federal agency to declare an unusual mortality event for bottlenose dolphins, a significant designation that Congress created in the wake of the in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and previous dolphin kill-off.

    The declaration means scientists will have access to additional research funding. That investigation and analysis by teams of national and international experts could take months or even years to finalize, and officials say there is likely little they can do to stop the deaths unless the root cause is ultimately blamed on humans. And determining a cause is difficult: Of the 60 unusual mortality events declared since 1991, causes have been determined for only 29 of them.

    Among dolphins, other strandings have also been caused by trauma, starvation, algal blooms and pollution.

    At the top of the suspect list for the deaths is the same disease that led to 740 dolphins dying between New Jersey and Florida in 1987 and 1988, a morbillivirus infection. Morbillivirus is found in a broad range of marine mammals like seals, and its symptoms often involve lesions appearing in the lungs and central nervous tissues. Many of the dolphins have washed up badly decomposed, and lesions have been found in some of them.

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