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NOAA plans ‘outside the box’ response to save J pod orca, which may have just days to live

Reaching over the blowhole of the orca known as J50 with a carbon fiber windsurf mast, researchers last month used a petri dish to collect breath droplets from the whale. J50 is emaciated and may also have an infection. (Katy Foster / NOAA Fisheries)
Reaching over the blowhole of the orca known as J50 with a carbon fiber windsurf mast, researchers last month used a petri dish to collect breath droplets from the whale. J50 is emaciated and may also have an infection. (Katy Foster / NOAA Fisheries)

The federal government is marshaling an emergency response for J50, the starving 4-year-old orca whale, which will include feeding live chinook — dosed with medicine — to the ailing animal who may only have days to live.

The young whale is so emaciated, the back of her cranium is visible. A worrisome white patch has also been spotted on the back of her head, near her blowhole. It could be an infection.

The crisis comes as another member of the southern-resident orcas is clinging to her dead calf for a 10th day, unwilling to let it go. The calf born July 24 lived for only half an hour. Now officials are racing to put together a plan to prevent another death in the critically endangered whale clan.

Reached while throwing together his gear to head out on his research boat to get breath samples from the whale, wildlife biologist Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle said J50 has lost about 20 percent of her body weight, and getting fish into her is as much about rehydrating the whale as feeding her.

“There are a lot of ifs, whether or not she will even take fish,” Hanson said. “The big concern is the decrease in hydration level; that just becomes very concerning.

“Her survival could be only a few days. She has continued to decline.”

Lynne Barre, director of the protected resources division of the Seattle branch of the West Coast Region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said a first step is getting a closer look at what might be afflicting the young whale.

A health assessment is planned to gauge her activity level and breathing. Biologists also will be noninvasively taking samples from her. Hanson will sample her breath and survey the droplets for pathogens, using a petri dish held from a distance over her blowhole. Other scientists are in the field now, using a drone to collect photos of her. Another biologist will collect scat from the whale from the surface of the water for analysis.

Barre said the agency has a permit to conduct an emergency response to help J50 and is working on a plan to hydrate and medicate the whale with live chinook — a plan still in development and facing approval by the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. — to save the whale’s life.

“It is a new idea, and we have some work to do to evaluate its potential and risks,” Barre said. “It’s a little outside the box; we need to figure out which fish, which boat, where, when and how.”

But given J50’s current condition, just standing by is not an option, Barre said. The whale has deteriorated markedly since last year.

Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, said the tribe has arranged for use of a jet boat, and he is at work finding a source of fish that would be suitable to feed J50, possibly caught by tribal commercial fishermen now on the water.

The fish would be captured alive either from seiners or reef netters, and put in a live tank on the boat.

To feed J50, the fish could be sluiced off the back of the boat in a chute, still alive, to the whale. If she takes the fish, more fish dosed with medicine could then be offered, Barre said.

The Lummi Nation is stepping up to help any way the tribe can, Julius said. The sight of J35 carrying her dead calf day after day has moved him and so many others, eliciting a worldwide reaction.

“You look at what is going on with this little baby that passed on, and the mother grieving and carrying the baby,” Julius said. “They belong to the Salish Sea,” he said of the orcas. “Just like we belong to the Salish Sea. They don’t have a voice, and I know this isn’t a long-term solution. But something needs to be done, something fast.

“She is in dire need,” he said of the starving 4-year-old.

While the emergency effort is not foolproof, some were relieved a plan is in the works to help.

“We are talking about possibly losing three females,” said Deborah Giles, research scientist for the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca.

J50 is a female, as was the calf J35 lost. J35, one of the families’ few breeding-age females, is a vitally important member of the clan. Yet, “If J35 keeps at this, we could lose her,” Giles said.

Giles uses scat-sniffing dogs to find feces from the southern residents, which will be analyzed to reveal the status of their health.

Studies led by center director Sam Wasser, based on analysis of those samples, have linked starvation to failed pregnancies among the southern residents. The endangered whale clan numbers only 75 members today, and the family has lost many breeding-age females.

Giles said she hoped J50, seen last night swimming west with her family in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, would return, and soon. “Hopefully they will be back before it is too late.”

NOAA has taken unprecedented steps on behalf of orca whales in the past – and succeeded.

Springer, or A73, a young northern-resident orca whale, turned up in Puget Sound near the Vashon ferry dock in 2002, malnourished, ailing and orphaned. The youngster began approaching boats.

The agency intervened, caring for Springer in a temporary sea pen in a cove near Manchester, and feeding and rehabilitating her until she was strong and healthy enough to be released back to the wild six weeks later in Johnstone Strait.

There, she was soon seen swimming with wild whales. She has since gone on to thrive, even bearing two calves as of 2017 in a success watched around the world.

It’s difficult to know just what is ahead for J50.

“There are a million different possibilities out there, and we want to take this step by step,” said Barre, who first came to the Northwest to help Springer, and has stayed since, working to recover the population of southern residents.

Watching Tahlequah continue to cling to her dead baby has been difficult – as has been watching the decline of J50, Barre said.

“They are both tragic situations and signs the population is not doing well.”


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