Stranding Center lecture gives residents insight into marine mammals

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Hailey Martinez, education coordinator for the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, talks about the sea turtles that the MMSC encounters during a lecture titled “Who Beaches in Ocean City” Wednesday, Feb. 29 at the Ocean City Free Public Library. Martinez starts off with the green sea turtle.

OCEAN CITY — For Ocean City residents, with a dolphin and a whale stranding less than a month apart, it might sound strange to hear that this year’s seal stranding season has remained relatively slow for the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine. But it’s true and it is a good thing, according to Hailey Martinez.

Martinez, education coordinator for the center, presented a lecture titled “Who Beaches in Ocean City” Wednesday, Feb. 29 at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

The MMSC was started in 1978 by Bob Schoelkopf and Sheila Dean and has since responded to over 4,000 strandings of marine mammals and sea turtles in New Jersey.

“These are wild animals that we deal with,” Martinez said.

“We’re a very small facility, but we cover the whole state of New Jersey,” she said.

“As long as they’re in New Jersey, we’re the only ones who respond to it.”

Martinez said the center, which only has six employees, relies on its volunteers. Being a non-profit organization, all the funding for the Marine Mammal Stranding Center comes from grants, donations and fundraising.

The MMSC is always looking for new volunteers, she said. Volunteers can work at the pool house during seal season, work the museum and festivals or be on call to respond to strandings. Stranding volunteers are sometimes the first responders to the scene when a marine mammal or sea turtle comes ashore.

There are many natural reasons for a sea creature to beach itself, Martinez said. Sometimes, they are sick or injured. Or, they unable to find food – although this year that is not the case.

“This year has been very different. We’ve never had such a quiet year for seals,” she said.

So far, there have been three seal strandings all season, she said.

“There’s obviously enough food out there. The water’s warm.”

Other natural reasons for a stranding can be disorientation by storms and sickness or injury like seal pox, respiratory problems, ear infections, shark bites and scratches.

The unnatural reason for a beaching or stranding is human interaction.

“Unfortunately, we see more of this than the natural,” Martinez said.

Boat strikes – the reason for the death of the fin whale that washed ashore in January – and entanglements from fishing nets and lines, are common. The center has responded to several animals so severely entangled in lines that it’s life threatening.

“We can’t find them all. The only way we know about these animals is if people spot them and tell us,” she said.

Pollution and trash in the water also play a role. Martinez showed several plastic bags recovered from the stomachs of sea animals to which the MMSC responded.

“Unfortunately, this is the one thing that they just die from,” she said, explaining that the animals cannot pass the plastic once ingested and that the MMSC technicians have no way to recover it while the animal is alive.

Martinez said the only thing that the MMSC can do is promote prevention.

Marine mammals and sea turtles are protected by state and federal law and anyone who violates that law can be fined or imprisoned.

“A lot of people think they are just trying to help,” she said, but sometimes they end up getting hurt in the process.

If a person gets too close to a seal, they may end up getting bit, Martinez said.

Seals, which come in the winter, can beach themselves just to sun or take a break from their journey. There are several types of seals, which are divided into three groups: true or earless seals, eared seals and walruses. Seals shed their fur every year and they are carnivores with teeth like dogs. They eat fish, shrimp and squid.

“Dolphins, we pretty much see year round,” Martinez said.

The dolphin found in the lagoon in Ocean City was a common dolphin, which usually travels in larger groups and does not come very close to the shore like a bottlenose dolphin would.

“The fact that the common dolphin was in our lagoon was not a good sign at all,” Martinez said.

There were six other common dolphin sightings that week in New Jersey, with one beaching itself in Villas and another further north. Three more dolphins were spotted in the Delaware Bay. Martinez said these incidents were probably related to the mass stranding of common dolphins earlier that month in Cape Cod.

The lagoon dolphin eventually died, just a few days after being spotted, from parasites in the brain, probably from a fish that it ate, something that the MMSC could not have treated if they were able to transport the dolphin back to the center.

Because animals that are sick or injured already have a high level of stress, Martinez said the technicians at the stranding center feared moving the dolphin would cause it to die.

“With dolphins or whales, they basically don’t strand themselves unless they are dying,” she said.

Toothed whales and baleen whales have both appeared on New Jersey’s beaches at one time or another. The fin whale that washed ashore in January was a baleen whale. Toothed whales include pygmy sperm, sperm, beaked and pilot.

Martinez’s mother, Peaches Lukens, added some of her personal anecdotes about responding to Ocean City’s recent beached whale as a stranding center volunteer.

“It was both an exhilarating experience and it was extremely sad,” she said. “At its prime it was a fully grown female and it’s the second largest animal on the face of the planet.”

She talked about the process of finding out how the whale died, including taking measurements and removing the blubber. The whale was cut up into sections and moved to a north-end beach where it was buried.

There were a total of 198 strandings in 2011, with seals making up 122 of the incidents, sea turtles were at 34 and dolphins and whales at 42. There was a zero percent recovery rate for dolphins and whales, but for seals and sea turtles about 90 percent survive.

To report a beaching or stranding, call the center at 266-0538. Martinez warned to stay at least 50 feet away from a marine animal and never to touch or approach it.


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