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Starving 4-year-old orca may get delivery of live salmon

Katy Foster
NOAA Fisheries
Researchers used a boom to collect exhalation samples from ailing orca J50 on July 21, 2018.

An emaciated, 4-year-old Pacific Northwest orca is drawing alarm.

NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said feeding live Chinook salmon to the female orca, possibly laced with medication, is being considered.

"We want to do this very carefully and deliberately because we don't want to go into a situation where we're creating an animal that becomes dependent on human handouts for food," Milstein said. "That's certainly not a recipe for survival in the wild, so we have to be very careful not to go down that road."

Whale scientists and the federal agency are weighing what it means to provide food and medicine to this endangered orca. The declining health of the orca has become apparent as it swims and feeds in the border waters between Washington state and British Columbia.

Credit Katy Foster / NOAA Fisheries
NOAA Fisheries
This picture from July 21 shows shrinkage around orca J50's head from weight loss, aka "peanut head syndrome."

The four-year-old female is a younger member of the same killer whale family that's been in the news because of a mother orca who persists in tending to her dead calf. The youngster is showing signs of starvation and infection.

Before a decision to intervene is taken, researchers in boats are trying to get a better handle on what's wrong with the young orca, known as J50. They have a drone ready to capture full body shots from above and also want to collect fecal and breath samples for analysis.

An earlier attempt in late July to collect droplets of breath using a long boom held over J50's blowhole yielded too small of a sample to provide a definitive diagnosis.

"We've been watching J50 now for a few weeks and watching her condition seem to deteriorate, so there's been increasing concern about that," Milstein said in an interview Friday. "The feeling is that if we're going to do something, we need to do it soon."

Milstein said J-pod was making the urgent data collection task difficult on Friday by disappearing from sight. He said the family group was last seen Thursday afternoon headed out the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Whale scientists also want to collect the dead calf of the seemingly grieving mother, J35, to do a necropsy if possible. That could reveal why the newborn died about a half-hour after birth.

The critically endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales is down to 75 individuals. As a young female, J50 holds particularly high value because of her "reproductive capacity to the population," Milstein said.

Against this backdrop, a Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force convened by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in March meets in Wenatchee Tuesday to formulate short and long term recommendations. The task force wants to address the major factors affecting orca survival of lack of prey, environmental contaminants and disturbance by vessels.

Possible recommendations could include further restrictions on salmon fishing, speed limits for ferries to reduce underwater noise and increased hatchery production of Chinook salmon. The recommendations will be finalized in the fall.