First, Let Me ‘Not’ Take a Selfie: Saving Marine Wildlife from Human Intervention

Photo courtesy of Emma Wulfhorst

Photo courtesy of Emma Wulfhorst

This Sunday, March 3, 2019, is the United Nations’ World Wildlife Day. What better way to celebrate this year’s theme of “life below water: for people and planet” than by saving stranded marine animals? For the people at The Marine Mammal Stranding Center (MMSC) in Brigantine, New Jersey, this is their job, not just on March 3, by every day of the year.

The MMSC, a private, non-profit organization, was founded in 1978 by Robert Schoelkopf and his wife, Sheila Dean. “For the past 41 years we’ve been established in the state of New Jersey to handle all stranded marine mammals and sea turtles that wash ashore,” said Schoelkopf. The MMSC was created “because there’s no one else in New Jersey to do it,” Schoelkopf continued. “These animals are federally protected animals. There’s no state government or federal government available to respond to these animals, so that’s why we do it.”

The MMSC handles all marine mammal strandings state-wide -- this covers a 1,800 mile-long coastline, including the back-bay and oceanfront. Even though the MMSC is New Jersey-based, they are occasionally called upon to assist with animals in other states.

The MMSC helps all sorts of marine mammals and has “responded to over 5,100 strandings of whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles,” according to their official website.

This week, the MMSC is handling a call about a stranded animal on Island Beach State Park, New Jersey. Once they receive a call about an animal, they send a group of volunteers out to the site to “see if the animal is indeed stranded or if it’s just resting and sunning itself and drying out.” If the animal is actually stranded, then Schoelkopf said it is “picked up and evaluated and we’ll see if it can be returned to the ocean or if we have to hold it for rehab.”

Currently, the most prominent animals the MMSC is dealing with are seals. “This is when the seals are coming in,” said Schoelkopf. “We haven’t seen anything that’s above or beyond normal winter seal conditions, so it’s the same thing as last year.” In 2018, the MMSC handled 112 seals. According to Schoelkopf, “of those 112, 60 of them were ‘pick-up and release’ because they were being interfered with by humans on the beach.”

Human interference is a growing issue for marine wildlife. “A lot of the problems we have with these animals aren’t physical problems that the animal has, but human intervention: people getting in the way, wanting to take up-close selfies with the animal, and trying to touch them or feed them,” Schoelkopf said. This is a problem not just in New Jersey, but nationwide. “People are just getting carried away and they think because the animal is there, it’s for their please to take pictures and pet them and whatnot and they don’t realize they are wild animals.”

The MMSC is able to operate because of its dedicated system of volunteers. “We have quite a large volunteer network,” said Schoelkopf. In addition to the volunteers, the MMSC receives all their funding through donations, grants, memberships, and fundraising efforts.

You can get involved with the MMSC and help marine wildlife by donating online through their website. If you’re from New Jersey and live within 15 minutes of your closest beach, you can even become a stranding volunteer by applying and attending a training session at the MMSC headquarters in Brigantine, New Jersey.