Ail­ing killer whale may need res­cue: ex­perts

Cap­ture, med­i­cal treat­ment could be next step for en­dan­gered fe­male

Calgary Herald - - CITY + REGION -

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?”

KATY FOS­TER /THE CANADIAN PRESS/FILES

Killer whale J50 sur­faces near the Lime Kiln Light­house off San Juan Is­land, Wash­ing­ton, on Au­gust 11.

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