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

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation celebrates new water system

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna cuts cedar ribbon at Ty-Histanis event.

Reflecting Spirit offers tapestry of West Coast stories

Gallery showcases Tofino and Ucluelet artists.

‘Beauty amongst such tragedy:’ B.C. photographer captures nature’s trifecta

David Luggi’s photo from a beach in Fraser Lake shows Shovel Lake wildfire, Big Dipper and an aurora

Campfire ban coming into effect across West Coast

The Coastal Fire Centre says bans will begin on Wednesday

Social media, digital photography allow millennials to flock to birdwatching

More young people are flocking to birdwatching than ever, aided by social media, digital photography

Forest fuel work needed to slow wildfires, B.C. premier says

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan joins John Horgan for tour

Liberals unveil poverty plan with lofty goals, but no new spending

Government’s goal is to lift 2.1 million people out of poverty by 2030

PHOTOS: Prickly porcupine rescued after hitchhiking down Coquihalla Highway

BC Conservation Officer Service members were able to grab the porcupine and move it to safety

New trial ordered for James Oler in B.C. child bride case

Appeals court dismissed Emily Blackmore’s appeal of guilty verdict

Convicted murderer still missing after escaping B.C. prison 2 weeks ago

Mission RCMP are continuing to search for escaped inmate John Norman MacKenzie

Smoky skies trap B.C. man inside for days

Air quality warning issued for Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley

Surf’s up in California, where it’s now the official sport

Grab a board, catch a wave and find yourself, ‘sittin’ on top of the world’

Case of truck driver charged in Humboldt Broncos crash adjourned until October

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu is charged with 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death, other charges

Most Read