Thursday, 9 February 2012
Rescuers brace for more dolphin strandings on Outer Cape
WELLFLEET — Wildlife rescuers remained poised for action this week as dolphins continued to beach themselves along the bayside shores of the Outer Cape, no end yet in sight to the exhausting and perplexing stretch of stranding activity that began nearly one month ago.
On Wednesday, nine common dolphins came ashore on a Brewster beach. On Friday, a pregnant female stranded in Wellfleet’s Blackfish Creek. Four more dolphins ran into trouble in the Herring River in Wellfleet on Sunday. All were rescued and successfully released — the Brewster dolphins at Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, the Wellfleet dolphins at Herring Cove in Provincetown — by trained staff and volunteers with the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s marine mammal rescue team, a group that has been working feverishly for four straight weeks to respond to the unprecedented flurry of strandings.
Since Jan. 12, 132 common dolphins have stranded on a 25-mile stretch of bay coastline from Dennis to Wellfleet. Of those, 37 have been successfully released back into the water. Ninety-two have died.
“The number of dolphins and how quickly we have seen this many animals come in has been unusual for sure. It’s the largest stranding of a single species in this area on record,” Kerry Branon, a spokesperson for IFAW, said Monday as the rescue team organized a command post in Wellfleet ahead of the next low tide.
“We are out there monitoring and ready to rescue any animals,” she said.
By Tuesday, the team was investigating reports of dead dolphins that had come ashore in Wellfleet and Brewster.
The protracted nature of the event has taken its toll on the energies and resources of IFAW’s dedicated staff. Katie Moore, head of the rescue team, said the total number of common dolphins stranded since January is preparing to outpace the average number of strandings to which IFAW responds in an entire year. That average is 228, and it includes not just dolphins but whales and seals.
“So I’ve reached more than half my annual average in a month,” said Moore, who traveled to Washington, D.C., late last week to brief Congress on the crisis. “It’s a real issue for us. … It’s taxing our supplies and our budget as well.”
Moore said her appearance before members of Congress was “a great opportunity” not only to update them on the situation but also to express IFAW’s concerns about “what’s happening to our federal support in all forms.” The organization receives grants from key foundations through NOAA — in particular the John H. Prescott grant program, which is in danger of being cut, she said
The relentless pace of the recent strandings is taxing IFAW’s rescue team not just financially but physically. Last weekend alone represented hours of toil on the mudflats and beaches of Wellfleet for the beleaguered staff and volunteers, whose chores range from fending pecking gulls away from the dolphins to hauling the heavy creatures up and down the sand as efforts to release them get underway.
Whether they will be able to find some respite in the coming weeks remains to be seen. High season for dolphin strandings lasts through April, Branon said.
Small comfort might be offered in the form of an explanation for what is causing the strandings, but even that has eluded the team. Moore said she is awaiting definitive results from nine necropsies that have been performed so far, “but what we are seeing grossly does not indicate any pattern of disease or injury or lesion that would indicate one particular cause for this event. In some respects it would be a relief if we could see that. … We often never come up with that [single] answer, and that is incredibly frustrating.”
There are two known factors that do come into play into the strandings, she said. One is the social nature of the dolphins, whose stick-together approach benefits them when it comes to feeding and eluding predators but “can be detrimental when it comes to stranding,” Moore said.
The other is the hook shape of the Cape, which seems to act as a trap. “Areas in Australia and New Zealand where there are mass strandings have the same geography,” she said. Once the dolphins have ventured inshore, the Cape’s convoluted creeks and marshes can confuse them further, and its gently sloping beaches can serve as a treacherous zone where “the water can slip right out from under them” on a dropping tide.
A recent aerial survey indicated that there could be about 200 dolphins at large in Cape Cod Bay at the moment. IFAW will continue to coordinate with NOAA and with an aerial crew from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, which is busy counting right whales at this time of year, to glean info on the number of dolphins in the bay.
“Though in some respects I don’t know if I want to know how many are still out there,” Moore said.