Temperatures are plunging, but emotions are heating up over whether the last five dolphins who have taken up residence in two New Jersey rivers will be able to survive the winter.
Critics of the way federal wildlife officials have handled the case confronted the agency overseeing the dolphins' care during a forum Tuesday night at Monmouth University.
It was their first chance for face-to-face questioning of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials since 16 bottlenose dolphins appeared in the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers last June.
Three dolphins have died so far, and only five of the original 16 remain in the Shrewsbury. It is unclear what happened to the other eight.
NOAA officials say it is possible they left the river on their own and returned to the open sea, but they have no way to know for sure.
The agency says trying to move the remaining dolphins is risky and probably wouldn't work.
But critics fear a repeat of 1993, when four dolphins died in the river when ice closed in on them and they drowned.
"Why are we waiting for strandings?'' asked Marlene Antrim of Hazlet. "Why don't you do something before it's an emergency situation? Some of you officials should go sit in that river and see how cold it is.''
David Gouveia, NOAA's marine mammal program coordinator, said doing nothing right now is in the dolphins' best interest.
"They are not trapped, they are not stranded, they are not ill and they are not injured,'' he said. "This is trying to do what's best for the animals.''
He said the dolphins that died in 1993 did so because rescuers tried to herd them out of the river, and actually chased them under the ice, where they perished.
"We ended up doing more harm than good,'' Gouveia said.
Some animal advocates remained unconvinced.
"Unless NOAA takes immediate action, these dolphins, who may be more intelligent than human beings and certainly are every bit as emotional and family-oriented as we are, will slowly die as winter progresses,'' said Daphna Nachminovitch, vice president of People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals, in a statement released before the meeting. "Taxpayers expect federal agencies like NOAA not to stand by while these vulnerable dolphins suffer agonizing deaths.''
Likewise, Joseph Kyrillos, Jennifer Beck and Sean Kean, all Republican state senators from Monmouth County, urged the agency to reverse course.
"NOAA has consistently maintained that any attempt to remove the dolphins from the rivers would be dangerous and possibly result in injury to the dolphins,'' they said in a statement. "Yet, it is becoming increasing apparent that taking no action whatsoever in light of the dolphins inability to adequately feed themselves will result in the death of the remaining animals.
The senators want NOAA to authorize an immediate rescue by one of the four marine mammal rescue organizations that have volunteered to rescue and rehabilitate them.
Last week, the NOAA said it expects that additional dolphins will either strand themselves or die as winter progresses. But it continues to feel the animals should not be netted or chased from the river, citing the risk involved.
Dr. Aleta Hohn, researcher at NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center, said there are nearly 7,500 bottlenose dolphins that spend the summer off New Jersey. Most head to North Carolina in October or November.
She said dolphins in this area generally head south when water temperatures hit 11 degrees Celsius; Tuesday's water temperature in the Shrewsbury was 1.4 degrees Celsius, or just above freezing.
But because the dolphins continue to find bait fish, they may show up in the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers for years to come.
"Maybe this is the beginning of something we're going to see more often in this area,'' she said. "They are very flexible animals that take advantage of the habitat in which they are found.''
NOAA spokeswoman Teri Frady also said the public needs to realize that dolphins in these two rivers might become a regular occurrence, regardless of what happens to the last five that are currently there.