By Estella R. Fullmer
For Hometown News
Dolphin stranding is on the rise along the eastern coast of the United States and there have been record numbers of manatees, dolphins and pelicans perishing all up and down the eastern seaboard's intracoastal waterways.
Some of the highest numbers of manatee deaths have been in Brevard County and most of the dolphin strandings have been around Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.
The New Smyrna Beach Marine Discovery Center, 520 Barracuda Blvd. on the North Causeway, has been taking steps to combat the marine-life deaths and improve the water quality and encourage healthy sea life in the Intracoastal Waterway in Volusia and Brevard counties.
Recently the staff and a few volunteers underwent training from HUBBS-SeaWorld Research Institute on rescuing stranded whales, dolphins and other mammals. Representatives from the Melbourne branch of HUBBS-SeaWorld came to New Smyrna Beach in November and, along with instructors from Volusia County's marine mammal stranding team, conducted the training for the MDC staff, according to Annie Morgan, Adopt-an-Estuary Coordinator of MDC.
"They taught us how to be first responders should a stranding situation arise here along our coast," Ms. Morgan explained. "We can also be called upon to lend assistance in other areas if needed, such as farther south along the Indian River Lagoon."
The session also included training for a basic necropsy to collect the samples needed to determine the mammal's cause of death.
"We hope we don't ever have to face that situation, but if we do, at least we all know how to handle it," Ms. Morgan said.
The MDC and HUBBS-SeaWorld are preparing for an expected increase in dolphin stranding because of the morbillivirus that has plagued mid-Atlantic dolphins in the past year. Officials are seeing a trend that infected dolphins are carrying the measles-like virus south as they migrate to warmer water for the winter. The virus is highly contagious among dolphins and may even be spreading to other marine mammals, such as humpback and pygmy whales. It appears that bottlenose dolphins are being hit the hardest with the virus.
There is no vaccine or any way to combat the spread of the virus in the bottlenose dolphin population and it spreads easily through contact or shared air. Ms. Morgan said officials in Florida are afraid the area bottlenose dolphin population is going to be infected during the next few months. So far it is believed the morbillivirus has killed more than 753 dolphins this year and they think they are only half way through the timeframe it will take to dissipate.
"The training was a great thing and we are very happy to have had HUBBS-SeaWorld and the Volusia County marine mammal stranding team out here to train us," MDC's Managing Director Chad Truxall said.
"We are really excited about our new living shell life reef program," Mr. Truxall said.
In March, the Marine Discovery Center plans to launch the Living Shell Life program on a four-acre stretch of salt marsh near its facility.
"We hope to create a living reef here that will get everyone in the community involved to develop a healthy lagoon eco-system," Mr. Truxall said.
"The first phase and focus for this year is recycling," Ms. Morgan said. "That is our pilot program."
She is trying to get local restaurants and other small businesses to participate by recycling their oyster shells. "The restaurants consider them garbage and just throw them out -- hundreds of them locally every week," she said, "but if they donate them to us instead, we can use those shells to create oyster mats that are the foundation for a living oyster reef."
Volunteers are needed to make the oyster mats and bags, which are then set on the sandy bottom of the estuary and weighted down. Eventually sediment builds up on the oysters and then various types of marine life begin to attach to the shells and the spartina grass that will grow in the new reef.
"Our plan is to create a local living shell reef as a sustainable source for spartina grass," Ms. Morgan said.
The grasses can then be transplanted to other areas of the estuary to combat algae blooms and pollution by providing a habitat for snails, crabs and other marine life that feed on microorganisms and algae and filter the water. When a living shell reef is successful and thriving, the area will have a healthier eco-system and there should be an increase in the variety of sea life from manatees and redfish to spotted sea trout, snappers, crabs and oysters.
Ms. Morgan, a New Smyrna Beach native and graduate of the University of Miami in marine science biology, is delighted to be working for the MDC and to be part of this pilot program.
"We have just had two kick-off events where we had about 50 volunteers show up to learn how to make the mats and bags," she said. "We made 70 mats and 29 bags!"
The MDC has open Mat Making Days on the first and third Saturdays every month and encourage groups to schedule private Mat Making Days.
"We have all the equipment here, so groups can come here to us or we can take some of our mobile equipment off-site and go to them," Ms. Morgan said.
Volunteers are needed to help clean the used oyster shells collected from the restaurants. They also are needed to drill holes in the shells and mount them to the marine mesh with zip ties. More volunteers are needed to fill the plastic aquaculture netting bags with oyster shells, which are then used to lay down like "sand bags" in the area of the living reef.
"The bags provide bulk and volume and allow the sediment to really build up in the new reef," Ms. Morgan explained. "As the sediment settles into the shells in the bags it stimulates new growth of the spartina grass and provides a place for other marine life such as crabs and oyster larvae to attach."
In effect, the new living shell reef becomes a sort of nursery for the estuary's marine life.
In April, the MDC is planning Laguna-Sea and will have a fundraiser to help raise money for the MDC and its efforts to improve the quality of the Intracoastal Waterway and Indian River Lagoon. For more information, Call (386) 428-4828 or visit marinediscoverycenter.org.