British Columbia

'We needed to intervene': Cross-border efforts mounted to help starving orca

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 reach her in time.

Officials preparing to give young whale J-50 medication by dart or possibly live fish

An aerial photograph of J-50 as a calf with her mother in 2015. Last week, another flyover by researchers showed how emaciated she had become. She belongs to J-pod, one of three endangered family groups in the dwindling southern resident killer whale population. (NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS permit)

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 reach her in time.

J-50, also known as Scarlet to observers, is three 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 co-ordinator 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)

But before anything could be done, they had to find the whale, which had disappeared with her pod for days into the fog off Vancouver Island.

Late Tuesday, J-50 and her mother were spotted alive in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, DFO announced on Twitter.

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. (Kelley Balcomb-Bartok)

Multiple threats to surival

The extraordinary efforts to help J-50 came after worldwide attention to the apparent display of grief by another​ mother in the same pod who carried her dead newborn for days.

Before J-50 was spotted, officials were concerned she was in such poor condition she might die before they could try to help.

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. While it's not certain that infection is J-50' s problem, it's likely given past killer whale deaths, said Rowles. And infection is something veterinarians have the tools to tackle.

Researchers use a pole to sample the breath of J50 on July 21, 2018, under permit number 21368. 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, officials said any action could still take days given the uncertainties of wild animals and weather at sea.

Now that the whales have been located, veterinarians need to assess J-50's health before deciding what to do.

Tuesday, 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.

Veterinarians could use 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.

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)

NOAA also said it has legal authorization to try 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.

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