Fate of starving orca in question as J-pod not spotted for days

Unprecedented efforts are in the works to help a malnourished and possibly sick young killer whale last spotted off the B.C. coast — if officials can find her in time.

J-50, also known as Scarlet to observers, is nearly four years old and part of the critically endangered southern residents, a population of killer whales with only about 75 individuals.

Since her celebrated birth in 2014, she’s never been big, but last week overhead drone footage made it clear how emaciated and lethargic she’d become.

“It became very evident … that we needed to intervene,” said Teri Rowles, marine mammal health and stranding program coordinator with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That set off a scramble on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border by veterinarians and others who are planning how best to reach, assess and help her — with tactics ranging from shooting her with an antibiotic-laden dart to feeding her medicated live fish, which NOAA said hasn’t been tried in the wild before.

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries researchers monitoring J-50 and other endangered southern resident killer whales in U.S. waters in July. (Katy Foster/NOAA)

Today, NOAA is practicing those techniques on land while Fisheries and Oceans Canada is trying to get authorization to treat the endangered animal.

But before anything can be done, they’ll have to figure out where the young whale went.

After days of worldwide attention, following the apparent display of grief by a mother in the same pod who carried her dead newborn for days, J-pod has vanished at sea into the fog off Vancouver Island.

Killer whales belonging to J-pod have attracted worldwide attention since another member, mother J-35, recently carried her dead baby for days in what was described as a display of grief. (Ken Balcomb/Centre for Whale Research)

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‘We may never see her again’

It’s not unusual for wild whales to be out of sight for some time, but J-50’s condition was so poor it’s not clear how long she has left.

“It is very possible that she has succumbed at this point, and we may never see her again,” said Rowles.

“We are hopeful that there is still a chance that we will be able to assist her with medical treatment.”

Southern resident killer whales are endangered under the Species at Risk Act, with multiple threats to their survival including declining chinook salmon, pollution, and shipping noise that is expected to increase with Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

There are so few left in the population, that any young female heading to maturity is key for the whales’ future. And while it’s not certain that infection is J-50′ s problem, it is likely given past deaths, said Rowles — and something veterinarians have tools to tackle.

Researchers use a pole to sample the breath of J-50 on July 21, 2018. A similar pole may be used to inject antibiotics to the struggling young whale. (Katie Foster/NOAA Fisheries)

Getting the dart gun ready

Despite the urgency, any action could still take days given the uncertainties of wild animals and weather at sea.

Fog is so thick today it’s difficult for Fisheries and Oceans crews to spot any whales on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where J-pod was last seen, said the department’s marine mammal coordinator Paul Cottrell.

Today, NOAA said it is getting supplies ready, including testing on land how to get a dose of broad-spectrum antibiotic into the body of a whale swimming in the wild.

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They could using a long pole or a dart gun, but either way it will mean a close, careful approach.

“It’s not easy work,” said Rowles.

Canadian fisheries officials still need authorization to help

On the Canadian side of the border, officials say they received NOAA’s proposal on Friday and have been working on authorization to medicate if needed.

“Obviously this is a high priority,” said Cottrell.

“It hasn’t been done before so we’ll have to quickly license that, and put it in place, and we’re reviewing that as we speak.”

He expected permits to be in place by tomorrow.

NOAA also said it has legal authorization to try something that has never been done in the wild — feeding the whale live chinook salmon dosed with medication. It’s not clear whether J-50 would eat any fish offered, let alone enough to receive an adequate dose.

“Antibiotics through injection is going to be our best course of action rather than antibiotics through food,” said Rowles.

J-pod whales are seen in the waters off the San Juan Islands in Washington State. (Capt Hobbes Buchanan San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours)

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