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Wednesday, April 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Feeding a wild orca: Inside the practice run to save the ailing killer whale J50

Lummi Tribal Chairman Jay Julius releases this 15-pound wild chinook off the stern of the boat Monday. Lummi fishermen were taking part in a test of a plan to help feed a starving orca in the J pod. (Alan Berner / Seattle Times)
Lummi Tribal Chairman Jay Julius releases this 15-pound wild chinook off the stern of the boat Monday. Lummi fishermen were taking part in a test of a plan to help feed a starving orca in the J pod. (Alan Berner / Seattle Times)
By Lynda V. Mapes Seattle Times

ABOARD THE LENGESOT — Jay Julius held on tight to the thrashing silver fish, precious food for an ailing orca he considers a relative.

Chinooks, served alive, are part of a rescue plan in the making for J50, a member of the critically endangered clan of southern-resident orcas.

For the Lummi Nation, the orca, also know as the blackfish, are family members, their relatives under the sea. And so for Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, this practice run Monday to procure food for the starving 4-year-old orca is a part of the Lummi Nation’s schelangen, or sacred obligation.

Julius was aboard the Lengesot, the tribe’s police boat, on a special mission: a quick practice run to determine whether feeding live fish to the starving whale is a viable option.

Motoring out to reef netters working the sockeye run near Lummi Island, the crew throttled down and slid alongside the gear operated by fisherman Riley Starks, of fish company Lummi Island Wild.

Julius and tribal councilman Nick Lewis leaned deep over the netting and reached in for the prize, just caught and waiting. Two giant Fraser River kings, about 15 pounds each.

With a quick scoop, Julius netted the thrashing fish and had them in a fish tote on the back of the Lummi boat, filled with fresh saltwater just pumped from the sea. An aerator purred bubbles into the cold, clear water.

Satisfied the fish were safely tucked away, bright, healthy and unscathed, it was time to rush the fish to a likely drop-off point for the whale, on the west side of San Juan Island. Then Lewis reached in and cradled one of the fish closely as a lover, holding it to his chest to gently slide it back into the water. The other thrashed and jumped and surged back into the sea from Julius’ hands, bright and fast as a bolt of silver lightning.

There was plenty learned along the way, about keeping the water from sloshing, to avoid beating up the fish and keeping the water aerated. But clearly, this out-of-the-box solution was solid. “It’s a good day,” Lewis said, as the Lummi buzzed over the waves back to the harbor. “It’s good to know this works.”

All the same, whether the feeding plan comes to pass is yet to be seen. Lynne Barre, director of the recovery plan for the southern residents based in Seattle, said Monday morning her agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has yet to do the health review it wants to do first on J50.

The agency has veterinarians standing by to assess her — how well she swims and breathes and her behavior. Biologists are on hand to gather fecal matter from the orca from the water, and even droplets of her breath, using a petri dish extended on a carbon fiber windsurfing mast. A biologist may also administer a long-acting dose of antibiotics, reaching with a pole to inject her.

Only then will the agency decide whether to try feeding her.

The fish could help hydrate her, and feed the young whale, which is so emaciated her cranium is visible. If the agency decides to feed her, the Lummi will deliver the fish to her, catching and carrying it to the whale to sluice to her off the boat.

The agency had not worked through the details of feeding her Monday or received final permitting approval to do so. But the idea was still on the table as just one more thing to try in an urgent situation.

The whale has lost about 20 percent of her body weight and may not have long to live.

But to try anything, the whales have to show up. As of late Monday afternoon, they still had not been seen in Washington waters. The agency has no permit to operate across the border in the Canadian waters of the Salish Sea. With no whales in sight, and no medical assessment yet completed, any possibility of a feeding operation was off the table until at least Wednesday.

The plight of the starving whale comes as the world has been riveted by the sad sight of J35, or Tahlequah, carrying her dead calf for 10 days straight as of last Thursday. No one has seen her since then, to know whether she still has not let it go.

For the Lummi, the crisis is personal.

Hereditary Chief Bill James, painted for spiritual protection, began the day’s practice run with a blessing that evoked the tribe’s ancestral tie to the whales.

“Part of our people that lived under the water, we are just trying to help the best way we can,” James said.

Down to only 75 whales, the smallest population in three decades, the situation reflects the larger problems in the Salish Sea, James said. “It is off balance,” James said. “We need to remember everything is alive. The water. The fishes. Everything, and we are here to respect it, and not just the almighty dollar.”

Just watching the young whale fade away is not an option, Julius said. The Lummi had to step up. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“We are both fishing creatures; we both live for the salmon. And in our community, we come together when someone is hurting. We come together when someone needs help. It is the same with the Salish Sea, and with the orcas. She is part of the web that connects us all.

“We each belong to the Salish Sea.”

James said he believes the mother whale, carrying her baby for hundreds of miles, was making a deliberate, public statement. “This is her protest; she is trying to get the world’s attention. And it is working.” People around the region and the world have followed the sad story of Tahlequah, and her starving relative.

But will the whales return for the help now offered to them? Would the starving whale even be well enough to eat?

“Everything has to fall into place,” Julius said. “We need lots of prayer and optimism and belief, everything has to align. We are going to give it our all. And we are ready. Now it is time to pray, pray, pray.”

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