Marine Mammal Stranding Center tackles pros and cons of growth
As has been the case for over a quarter century, the primary focus and solitary objective of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center is helping aquatic animals that have become too sick, injured or disoriented to help themselves.
"My wife and I used to do dolphin and sea lion shows at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, and I felt bad for the animals in captivity and wanted to get out of that business," says MMSC director Bob Schoelkopf. "Around the same time strandings started to happen in the area and no one knew who to call, and since I did the dolphin shows they'd call me.
"I began to realize that many animals were being left to lay on the beach and die without any help from state or private organizations, so my wife (Sheila Dean) and I got the center started with a CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) grant in 1978."
The MMSC, a non-profit organization with state and federal operating authorization, began in the Gardner's Basin section of A.C., but has spent most of its existence on a half-acre lot on the bay side of Brigantine. Through CETA, it also became the first such establishment in the nation allowed to hire a paid, 24-hour, on-call staff of Stockton College students to help with strandings. It receives some grant funding, but relies predominantly on donations, memberships and fundraisers to survive.
Much has changed since the center got started 27 years ago, most notably the growing number of calls it receives to assist distressed aquatic animals. As New Jersey's only such facility, the MMSC has had to deal with problems associated with population growths of both humans and aquatic animals. In that way it is somewhat a victim of its own success, as certain previously threatened species are thriving again with a percentage-related profusion of strandings.
"In the early years, if we did five animals per year we'd be busy," says Schoelkopf, who is one of seven fulltime MMSC employees and the NJ State Coordinator for Marine Mammals. "This year, from January 1 to [the second week of June] we've done 128. We used to do two or three seals per year, and we've done 93 so far.
"We've had to turn down a couple of rescues in other states because we just couldn't accommodate any more. At one time we had 18 seals in house (comprised of four intensive-care tanks) and we're only equipped to deal with maybe 12. It was very taxing on the staff and made for many long days."
Ironically, the federal government, which enabled the founding of the MMSC in the first place, has tended to contribute to its space problems. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - which relies immensely on the MMSC and similar facilities in other states for research and data - requires any medicated animal to remain in-house for at least two weeks, regardless of its condition. The average cost to rehabilitate an animal is up to about $1,500 says Schoelkopf, making for a perpetually tight budget year after year.
"Sometimes I don't think people realize that we're not just a community-type facility, we're handling the entire state of New Jersey," says Schoelkopf. "There are sometimes animals here that are healthy enough to be released, but we're not allowed to do so."
Finding space for all the animals in the MMSC's community-sized accommodations has been exacerbated by the prospect of losing its lease when it expires in five years. The City of Brigantine has leased the land to the MMSC for $1 per year since 1980, but it has been a mutually beneficial arrangement considering the amount of tourism dollars generated by the site (which has its own small sea-life museum and gift shop, and is adjacent to the Brigantine Historical Museum) over the years.
Now, however, that half-acre piece of waterfront property is worth millions of dollars, and city officials have made it clear during City Council meetings that cashing in is certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
"If the city opts to put that lot up for sale when our lease runs out, I guarantee you it will be sold in a matter of days because there are developers who have come to me with an interest in buying it," says Schoelkopf. "We're exploring other options [including working with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for potential financial assistance], but I'd rather not publicize our options at this point."
Schoelkopf explains that other states have relied on public viewing aquariums to fund their marine rehabilitation centers, with the proceeds from the former serving to finance the latter.
"But that set-up is disappearing because the concern is that the healthy animals may become contaminated with fatal diseases from contact with the sick," says Schoelkopf.
The MMSC was recently in the national spotlight when a beluga whale swam into the Delaware River and Schoelkopf was put in charge of a monitoring team to ensure its safety. The whale - about 10- to 12-feet long - eventually made its way out of the Delaware, into the Schuylkill River, then back into the ocean. Its last sighting was May 11.
That was one of several unusual cases the MMSC has been associated with since 1978. Another involved a wrongly directed right whale (a species that can reach 60 feet in length) that swam into the Delaware about five years ago and had to be directed back out. A couple others involved penguins.
"One time a penguin was stolen from the Philadelphia Zoo and I ended up testifying on a grand jury against the guy who stole it since it's a federally protected bird," recalls Schoelkopf. "Another time I had to go get a penguin that made it [to the East Coast of the U.S.] after being tossed off a ship that was in the Southern Hemisphere. There have been some interesting cases."
Visit the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 3625 Atlantic-Brigantine Blvd. in Brigantine. Call 266-0538 or visit www.mmsc.org for donation, volunteering or tour information.
All money raised through a $10 cover charge will be divided and dispersed among two non-profit organizations — the Brigantine Marine Mammal Stranding Center and the Ocean City Repertory Theatre — each of which was severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
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