MMSC's Mission to Save Marine Animals
BY NICK DIULIO
A female grey seal found in Point Pleasant, recovering at MMSC’s intensive care unit
On a cool, breezy spring morning, Bob Schoelkopf walks through the intensive care unit to check on his seals. "This one here we picked up in Asbury Park not too long ago," says Schoelkopf, pausing in a narrow passageway lined by four separate tanks used to treat and observe the animals when they first arrive here at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey. He motions toward a large glass enclosure to his right, where a small grey seal, barely a month old, rests peacefully next to a basin of clear, deep water. "He had some gashes we had to suture, but he's doing all right. We'll probably be releasing him soon."
It has been a relatively slow month here at the MMSC. In addition to the baby grey seal, Schoelkopf and his modest staff—six full-time employees and a handful of tenacious volunteers—are nursing three more formerly stranded seals back to health before releasing them into the waters off the New Jersey coast. "This same time last year, we had 18 seals in-house," says Schoelkopf. "You never know how many you're going to find."
There may be no telling how many seals MMSC will take care of at any given time, but every summer the center welcomes a steady stream of students for educational programs like a dolphin camp, mock stranding rescues, and sunset beach walks.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center is the only facility of its kind in New Jersey, a modest, bustling operation on a half-acre plot of city-owned land dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating distressed mammals and sea turtles along all 1,800 miles of the state's waterways.
Schoelkopf founded the center in 1978 after applying for federal funding under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, money that allowed him to hire marine biology students from nearby Stockton College and get the operation up and running. Prior to that, Schoelkopf had been the manager of dolphin shows at Atlantic City's Steel Pier, a job that left him weary of seeing animals in captivity. "I was just fed up with it," says the 65-year-old former Navy corpsman. "They never get to see sunlight, and it just seemed barbaric."
Since founding the MMSC, Schoelkopf estimates that he and his tireless staff have taken part in the rescue of close to 4,000 whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles that become stranded along New Jersey's tributaries and ocean coastline. Most of the time, the animals are victims of shark bites, cuts and fractures from propellers, or internal respiratory and ear infections. More insidiously, some of the stranded mammals are found suffering from a multitude of man-made hazards like fishing nets, hooks, and plastic. "We find a lot of seals with pollution in their stomachs," says Schoelkopf. "They eat plastic thinking it's food, and then it becomes entangled in their insides. It's a major problem."
The effort to rescue these animals—75 percent of which are seals—stretches far beyond the center's home in Brigantine. When a stranded animal is discovered, an MMSC staff member will call one of 400 trained first-responder volunteers. The volunteer then heads to the scene to take photos of the animal and to analyze its weight, possible injuries, and overall health. If the seal or sea turtle is in trouble—wounded, underweight, or ensnared—one of Schoelkopf's three trained technicians will mobilize the MMSC transport truck, drive to the site of the stranding, and bring the wounded mammal back to the center for treatment. There the animal is typically treated for six to eight weeks: It is fed, given antibiotics and vitamins, treated for wounds, and eventually released back into the wild after being tagged with a distinct marker.
The enterprise is as expensive as it is comprehensive. Each animal costs about $1,500 to rehabilitate, and Schoelkopf says the MMSC budget usually tops $650,000 a year, every dime supplied by donations, grants, membership, and fund-raising. Moreover, it's difficult to plan ahead. In 2011, for instance, the MMSC treated 122 seals, 42 cetaceans (dolphins and whales), and 34 turtles. Based on those figures, Schoelkopf has already stocked up on $16,000 worth of fish (seals can eat more than 10 pounds a day), a supply that may end up being greater than the demand.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC RYAN ANDERSON (SEAL, SCHOELKOPF); DALE GERHARD (WHALE)