Ailing killer whale may need rescue: experts
Capture, medical treatment could be next step for endangered female
VANCOUVER Capturing and treating an extremely sick and endangered killer whale may be the next step in a rescue attempt, say officials leading the operation in Canada and the United States.
The extraordinary measure would allow rescuers to conduct a hands-on, physical examination should circumstances arise.
If the young female killer whale known as J50 is stranded on a beach or separated from its family, officials say they are laying out steps that would involve capturing and treating the animal before returning it to the wild.
Chris Yates, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S., said the ultimate objective is that J50 survive in the wild and contribute to the recovery of southern resident killer whales.
“We do not intend to intervene or capture J50 in a manner contrary to that objective or when there is a negative impact to her pod or the wild population,” he said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
“We are preparing along with our partners to rescue J50 if she is ultimately separated from her family unit or stranded, and rescuing her is the only alternative before us.”
Putting the whale in captivity is not their objective, said Yates, who is the assistant regional administrator for protected resources with NOAA Fisheries.
Officials don’t intend to intervene if the whale is with her pod, he said.
Department of Fisheries regional director Andrew Thomson said it’s a difficult situation.
“A lot of logistical challenges to consider, ensuring everyone is prepared for what can happen. We are trying to be in the best prepared position should a rescue be required through separation or stranding.”
The latest aerial photos of the whale show a noticeable loss of fat behind the head, which creates the “peanut head” appearance.
Veterinarian Joe Gaydos, who is with the SeaDoc Society, a marine wildlife program based out of the University of California, Davis, saw J50 most recently and said she is in extremely poor condition.
“She was the thinnest killer whale I’ve ever seen. This is a very sick whale.”
The orca is one of only 75 remaining southern resident killer whales and has declined over recent months to the point where she is emaciated and often lagging behind her family.
Another whale in the same pod, known as J35, triggered international sympathy this summer when she kept the body of her dead calf afloat in waters for more than two weeks.
The southern resident killer whales don’t have enough chinook salmon, the staple of their diet. They also face threats from toxic contamination as well as vessel noise and disturbances that disrupt their ability to communicate and forage.
There hasn’t been a successful birth in the population since 2015. Losing J50 would also mean losing her reproductive potential.
NOAA Fisheries said the next steps could include doing a handson physical exam, which could lead to quick medical treatment and release. Another option at that point would be holding her in a marine net pen in Puget Sound for a short time for rehabilitation and medical care before returning her to the wild to reunite with her family.
J50 has lagged behind her group in the ocean, at times trailing for miles, raising questions about what criteria would be used to determine if she has separated enough for scientists to attempt capture.
Yates said J50 would have to show more extreme behaviour than what she has exhibited so far, and scientists will act if they don’t believe she’ll reconnect with her pod.
An international team of Canadian and U.S. whale experts has mounted an intensive effort to help the orca since concerns were raised in mid-July.
They have taken breath and fecal samples, but still don’t know for certain what’s wrong with J50.
Response teams have tried to give her medication to help with parasitic worms, which they believe she has based on fecal samples taken from her mother.
Teams have also dropped live salmon from a boat as J50 and her pod swam behind — a test to see whether fish could be used as a means of delivering medication.
Drone images taken Monday showed J50 much thinner than she was last year. Her mother, J16, has also declined in the past month, perhaps because of the burden of helping catch and share food with J50, experts said.
“We don’t want to take her from her mom where we have a J35 situation,” Gaydos said. “These are very hard questions to answer and I think that right now the good thing is we’re talking about all the options.”
What to do to help J50 has generated intense emotional reactions on social media and other forums. Some have pleaded with federal officials to do everything they can to save her, including feeding her or capturing her. Others worry that more intervention would stress her and her family members. They think that nature should be allowed to run its course.
“We would love J50 to survive,” said Susan Berta, co-founder of the Orca Network, an advocacy group. “At what point are we doing more harm than good?”
Killer whale J50 surfaces near the Lime Kiln Lighthouse off San Juan Island, Washington, on August 11.