TRENTON — The head of a marine mammal rescue group said he is afraid the last five dolphins that were staying in the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers since June may be dead, an expert reports.
Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, said Monday that increasing ice in the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers, coupled with the fact that no one has seen the dolphins since Thursday, indicates they may have died.
Schoelkopf said when he last saw the bottlenose dolphins last Tuesday, they looked emaciated and weak.
"I don't think they're alive anymore," he said. "They haven't been seen since Thursday, and the ice started freezing then. We probably won't see them until the spring when they wash up somewhere.
"The last time I saw them, they were in such a weakened condition, so thin, that I can't see how they would have survived," he said.
A spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has jurisdiction over the animals, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Monday afternoon.
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.
But NOAA said trying to coax or scare the dolphins from the river is risky and probably would not work. The agency has said it believes the dolphins are trying to expand their habitat — something that should not be interfered with even if it means letting them die.
A pod of 16 dolphins showed up in the two rivers in June, thrilling onlookers as they frolicked in the waves and gorged themselves on plentiful bait fish.
Three of the dolphins have died already. Federal officials have said it is possible the other eight dolphins may have left the rivers on their own, but cautioned there is no way to know for sure.
As soon as the dolphins appeared in June, Schoelkopf began calling for a rescue attempt, citing the 1993 case of four dolphins that 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 to breathe.