Vets dis­cuss treat­ment op­tions for ail­ing or­cas

J17 and K25 are ex­tremely thin and might not sur­vive the win­ter, say re­searchers

StarMetro Vancouver - - VANCOUVER - WANYEE LI

The team of vet­eri­nar­i­ans who valiantly tried to save young J50 in her dy­ing days are once again talk­ing about how they can help two other ail­ing or­cas who be­long to the same crit­i­cally en­dan­gered south­ern res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion.

Head ma­tri­arch J17, whose daugh­ter re­fused to let go of her dead new­born baby for more than two weeks last sum­mer, is show­ing signs of se­vere mal­nour­ish­ment.

K25, a 27-year old male, is also de­clin­ing. His mother died in 2017.

J17 was last spot­ted on New Year’s Eve and K25 was last seen in mid De­cem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the U.s.-based Cen­ter for Whale Re­search. They both have peanut-head syn­drome, a con­di­tion very few or­cas sur­vive, ac­cord­ing to bi­ol­o­gists.

Canada’s Fish­eries and Oceans Min­is­ter Jonathan Wilkin­son, told Starmetro in De­cem­ber fed­eral au­thor­i­ties are will­ing to de­ploy re­sources to try and save an orca in British Columbia’s wa­ters —

like it did for J50 last sum­mer — if the sit­u­a­tion called for it.

The vet­eri­nar­i­ans want to be ready if it comes to that.

“We’ve started talk­ing,” said Martin Haulena, head vet­eri­nar­ian at the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium.

But un­favourable weather and the fact that south­ern res­i­dent or­cas are often not seen for weeks at a time dur­ing the

win­ter months, make any res­cue ef­fort un­likely right now, he said.

In ad­di­tion, J17 and K25 are full-grown killer whales, whereas J50 was an ex­tremely un­der­sized young­ster who was only a few years old. The lo­gis­tics of treat­ing an an­i­mal that large are chal­leng­ing in a cap­tive en­vi­ron­ment, let alone in the wild, said Haulena.

It’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent sce­nario than the one in the sum­mer of 2018 where Amer­i­can and Cana­dian au­thor­i­ties or­dered a res­cue mis­sion for J50 when it be­came clear she would die with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion. At the time, there were 75 whales left in the south­ern res­i­dent killer whale pop­u­la­tion.

Haulena and three other vet­eri­nar­i­ans from the United States de­liv­ered an­tibi­otics and de­wormer to young J50 last sum­mer as she showed signs of mal­nour­ish­ment. It was the first time vet­eri­nar­i­ans had ad­min­is­tered medicine to a free-rang­ing orca in Canada or the United States.

In her last weeks, she strug­gled to keep up with her fam­ily in the Sal­ish Sea and vet­eri­nar­i­ans were pre­pared to jump into the wa­ter with her if she was left be­hind.

That op­por­tu­nity did not hap­pen and she dis­ap­peared in mid Sep­tem­ber.

With only 74 south­ern res­i­dents left, the loss of two more in­di­vid­u­als would be a sig­nif­i­cant blow, ac­cord­ing to whale re­searchers. The whole pop­u­la­tion is strug­gling due to a lack of prey, tox­ins in the wa­ter and ves­sel noise.

An­other orca, J16 — J50’s mother — also ap­peared very thin in ae­rial im­ages taken in Sep­tem­ber 2018.

Joe Gay­dos, a ma­rine mam­mal vet­eri­nar­ian with Seadoc So­ci­ety, was among the last to see J50 alive.

He hopes J17 and K25 can re­bound on their own. But he and the other vet­eri­nar­i­ans are weigh­ing their op­tions in case the whales can’t.

“Some of the things we were con­sid­er­ing are, do we want to go out there and try and make a di­ag­no­sis, do we want to try in­ter­ven­tion stuff,” said Gay­dos.

Vet­eri­nar­i­ans and whale re­searchers agree it would be un­ac­cept­able to sep­a­rate the whales from their fam­i­lies, even if they are clearly ail­ing.

DAVE ELLIFRIT/CEN­TER FOR WHALE RE­SEARCH

Canada’s Fish­eries and Oceans Min­is­ter Jonathan Wilkin­son said fed­eral au­thor­i­ties are will­ing to de­ploy re­sources to try and save an orca in British Columbia’s wa­ters if the sit­u­a­tion called for it.

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