Harassment of NJ dolphins increasing

August 11, 2008 7:31:32 AM PDT
More people are harassing a group of dolphins that has been lolling about in two New Jersey rivers, volunteers who have been keeping watch over them said Thursday.

Bill Schultz, the Raritan Riverkeeper, is one of several volunteers who have been keeping an eye on the pod of 12 to 15 dolphins that lately has been frolicking in the Navesink River in Red Bank.

He said boaters are increasing their harassment of the dolphins near the Route 35 bridge between Red Bank and Middletown.

"I'm starting to get concerned, because people are getting more callous in their treatment of the animals," he said Thursday before a public hearing in Toms River on beach access.

"I was out Sunday, and I counted 32 boats surrounding them," Schultz said. "There are more people who are violently chasing them with kayaks and personal watercraft. They just won't leave them alone."

Earlier this summer, the dolphins showed up in the Shrewsbury River in Sea Bright, possibly after making a wrong turn following schools of bait fish along the coast. While they fed and frolicked in the narrow waterway, most people gave them space, even though a few had to be shooed away by state Marine Police and federal wildlife officials.

But now that the dolphins have ventured into the nearby Navesink, the pressure on them is getting worse, said Lorraine McCartney, another Riverkeeper volunteer.

"People stop their cars right on the bridge and park and look at them until the police come and order them to move," she said.

Federal regulations require that boaters stay at least 50 yards away from the dolphins; harassing them is a federal offense punishable by a $10,000 fine.

Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said she had not heard of stepped-up harassment of the dolphins, and could not immediately say how many people have been issued warnings or fines for bothering them.

Schultz said some of the people he approached and informed that they were venturing too close to the dolphins immediately complied and appeared not to know they were breaking any rule. But others ignored him.

"Some of them just don't care," he said. "They want to get their Flipper picture."

What, if anything, to do about the dolphins has been the subject of great debate since they surfaced in the Shrewsbury River in late June. Federal wildlife officials are loath to do anything that would stress the dolphins, and say there is time to wait for them to head back out to the open waters of Sandy Hook Bay and then the ocean.

But volunteer rescuers are worried that waiting too long could invite an even worse replay of a disastrous scenario that resulted in the deaths of four dolphins who lingered too long in the Shrewsbury River in 1993. Ice eventually closed in on them and they drowned.