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NOAA Fisheries And Partners Readying Plans To Rescue Sick Orca

Katy Foster
NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786-03.
J-50, the young orca also known as Scarlet, swimming near San Juan Island, Wash., on Sept. 7, 2018. The shape of her head shows she is dangerously thin.

Experts say they’re preparing a plan to capture and treat a sick, critically endangered orca if there is no way to save it in the wild.  They're preparing to rescue the animal known as J-50 if she separates from her family or gets stranded while alive.

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries say their attempts to help young J-50 in the field have so far not improved her condition.

Even after two doses of long-acting antibiotics by dart, she’s still losing weight and dangerously skinny. And she sometimes falls far behind her pod.

Scientists are  drawing up plans if she gets separated to do a battery of tests and possibly keep her in a net pen for treatment. Joe Gaydos with the SeaDoc Society is one of the vets working on her care.

“If we were say to put an endoscope down and she has five plastic bags in her stomach, that’s a pretty straightforward procedure that’s been done many times to remove those sorts of things. If she has a congenital malformation that would require surgery, surgery is very, very hard on these animals,” Gaydos said.  

He says it’s entirely possible they could end up with a diagnosis they cannot correct.  If that happened, NOAA says they would promptly return her to the J-Pod to spend the rest of her life with her family in the wild.

There are some opponents of the plan. An online petition against it has already gathered hundreds of signatures. NOAA Fisheries is holding public meetings this weekend in Friday Harbor and Seattle to get feedback.

NOAA Fisheries says they want to emphasize that their overall objective is for the young orca to survive in the wild and contribute to the recovery of Southern Resident Killer Whales without putting the rest of the orcas in her pod at risk.

J-50 is one of  just 75 remaining fish-eating orcas known as Southern Rresident Killer Whales that spend time in Pacific Northwest waters.

Another orca in the same pod, known as J-35, triggered international sympathy this summer when she kept the body of her dead calf afloat in waters for more than two weeks.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to