Cdn, U.S. scientists consider novel plan to save endangered orca on death’s door

J50 is one of just 75 remaining southern resident killer whales from B.C. to California

American and Canadian scientists are considering a Hail Mary effort to save an endangered orca that may have only days to live.

The female killer whale known as J50 appears emaciated, lethargic and has lost about 20 per cent of her body weight, said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States.

J50 is one of just 75 remaining southern resident killer whales that travel the coastal waters from British Columbia to California.

“She’s a female about four years old and obviously very valuable to the population as a reproductive female, so we’re looking at all the possibilities for whether we could make a difference in her survival,” Milstein said. “The challenge is that the biologists are saying they haven’t seen a whale deteriorated to this point pull out of that before.”

Officials with both NOAA and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada are considering options, including feeding the underweight killer whale chinook salmon with medication in it — a strategy the U.S. department believes hasn’t been used before.

At this stage, they are weighing whether intervening could be worse than doing nothing and are considering ways to feed the whale without encouraging a dependency on humans, Milstein said.

At the same time, the scientists are keenly aware that they’re racing against the clock.

“They feel the situation is dire, that she probably has potentially a matter of days. Nobody knows for sure, (and) if we were going to attempt something that we would need to do it pretty soon,” Milstein said.

OPINION: Grieving orca should inspire more than momentary sympathy

The first step is observing the whale to pinpoint her ailments with drone footage and by collecting fecal and breath samples from her blow hole, he said.

J50 has a syndrome called “peanut head,” where her head appears too small for her body. Biologists believe the syndrome occurs when orcas don’t get enough food and don’t develop properly. A white spot has also been observed near her blow hole, which could indicate an infection, he said.

Scientists were out on the water Thursday looking for J50’s pod, but the whales were last seen heading toward open water, he said.

Linda Rhodes, a research microbiologists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said researchers held a petri dish over J50’s blowhole to collect a sample of the spume on July 21.

While the emergency sample showed evidence of bacteria and fungus, it wasn’t enough to determine an infection because it could have come from the surrounding environment, she said. They’re hoping to collect some fresh samples when they find the pod again.

As a young female with reproductive potential, J50 could play a vital role in the survival of the species.

“That’s where the births would come from to help recover the population in the longer term,” Milstein said.

The same pod includes a whale known as J35 that has been seen as recently as Wednesday pushing the body of her deceased newborn calf through the water. The calf died shortly after birth on July 24.

The southern residents are facing threats from many angles, including chemical pollutants that accumulate in their blubber and noisy ship traffic that interferes with their communication. Chief among the concerns is the lack of availability of their primary food source, chinook salmon.

The Canadian government limited the chinook salmon fishery recently in an effort to help the recovery of the southern residents. It also imposed a minimum distance of 200 metres for vessels to stay away from killer whales in Canadian waters and is conducting research on the impact of pollution.

While Milstein was not aware of any other attempt to feed a struggling killer whale medicated salmon, he said the closest example was the rescue of an orphaned killer whale in 2002.

The northern resident killer whale known as Springer, or A73, made headlines around the world when she was reunited with her pod off the coast of British Columbia.

Springer was two years old when she was found in Puget Sound near Seattle, ailing and separated from her pod. She was the first orca to be rescued, rehabilitated and successfully released back into the wild.

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Ladysmith Camera Club takes photography to the streets

Photography club hostinga session on photographing urban life

Ladysmith-Chemainus weight loss coaches know what works first-hand

Bev Robinson and Marilyn Mons are living proof of what works

Editorial: British Columbians depending on affordability promises

Following last month’s campaigning, throne speech introduces coming initiatives

North Oyster students could Play Here by April

Initial work to begin in March on playground Ecole North Oyster won in BC-wide contest

Ladysmith Steeling itself for some football

Youth Football Club ready to ride some great fall momentum into spring

B.C. students win Great Waters Challenge video contest

Video, mural and song about saving the salmon claims the top prize

Disgraced ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner released from prison

He was convicted of having illicit online contact with a 15-year-old North Carolina girl in 2017

B.C. communities push back against climate change damages campaign

Activists copying California case that was tossed out of court

B.C. VIEWS: Power politics wins over rational energy policy

B.C Hydro continues to face interference on rates

PR firm suspends contract with former B.C. premier amid groping accusation

Edelman says in a statement that Campbell has served as a special adviser to the firm since last July

James says B.C. budget puts priorities on NDP’s poverty, environment plans

She said she expected the government’s poverty reduction and climate change strategies to be priorities in the budget

PHOTOS: Day 1 of the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer

Games kicked off in Red Deer this week

Most Read