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A Game of Watch, Wait And Hope As Preparations Are Made To Tend To Ailing Orca

Katy Foster
NOAA Fisheries
J50 on July 21, 2018.

Federal scientists and tribal fishermen have been preparing to take unprecedented action to help an ailing orca whale – if they ever see her again.

She’s part of the southern residents’ J-pod, a family group that travels together and has not been spotted in U.S. or Canadian waters for several days. The last reported sighting was Saturday in Canada. Patchy fog there has made tracking the orcas tricky in recent days.  

The southern resident orca whales are the most imperiled population of killer whales in the Northwest. They reside in Puget Sound for much of the year and eat only fish, primarily another endangered species, Chinook salmon. This makes orca recovery especially challenging. Their numbers fell to just 75 after a member of the L-Pod went missing in June - the lowest count in 30 years.

The young orca known as J-50 – also called Scarlet by some -- is about three and a half years old.  She was one of six young orcas born as part of a so-called orca baby boom in 2014. Three of those six have already died.

Earlier this summer, federal scientists noted that J-50  isn’t doing well. In drone images, she appears emaciated. They’re worried she may have an infection, which can be fatal. So they’re intervening.

The first step, will be releasing live Chinook salmon in the water near her, 50 -100 yards ahead of her and any companions with her.

“And we’re not even sure that  they will - she will - consume the prey at this point,” said Teri Rowles, a veterinarian with NOAA fisheries, which is now holding daily calls for press following news of the endangered orcas from around the world.

She says this intervention is not meant to fully meet J-50’s nutritional needs.

“But it could potentially be a mechanism by which we could provide medications or treatments that can’t be delivered in any other manner.”

The other delivery mechanisms they’re preparing are injections using darts or a long pole, so they can  administer a long-lasting antibiotic.

But there’s serious concern J-50 may have succumbed already in the days since she was last spotted in Canadian waters.  

"It is very possible that she has succumbed at this point and that we may never see her again,” Rowles said, adding that they’re still hopeful.   

Another potential hitch to helping is the lack of a license to do this intervention in Canada, at least for now.

As of Tuesday, Canadian law could prevent it, said Paul Cottrell, a Marine Mammal Coordinator with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who also spoke on the conference call.

"We just amended the marine mammal regulations to prohibit feeding marine mammals because we don't to habituate marine mammals to people, but again we're reviewing that method right now."

Cottrell said the permits might be in place by Wednesday, but that permission is in place for the more standard monitoring activity, such as collecting scat or breath samples.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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