Race to save the critically endangered orca: Experts plan to capture starving 3-year-old

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Federal biologists are formulating a plan to capture and treat a sick, critically endangered orca. 

Officials said they will intervene and rescue the orca immediately if she becomes stranded or separated from the rest of her tightly knit group of whales, which are currently swimming off the coast of Canada in the Pacific Northwest.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does not plan to keep the three-year-old orca, called J50, in permanent captivity.

Instead, the goal would be to restore the young animal to full health and release her back with her family.

Another whale in the same pod – known as J35 – triggered international sympathy this summer when she kept the body of her calf afloat in waters for over two weeks.

The two whales are among just 75 of the fish-eating orcas that spend time in Pacific Northwest waters, known as Southern Resident Killer Whales.

‘We don’t intend to intervene while she’s with her family,’ Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for NOAA’s protected resources division, told reporters during a recent media call.

‘If we are presented with a situation where a rescue is the only viable alternative, we will rescue her.’

Veterinarians believe they have now exhausted all treatment options possible while the animal is still in the wild, including twice injecting the free-swimming whale with antibiotics in Pacific Northwest waters.

Despite the treatment, J50 is thinner than ever due to undetermined health issues.

‘This is a very sick whale,’ said Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian and science director of SeaDoc Society. ‘We don’t think she has long.’

If veterinarians and other experts involved in assessing J50 in the field determine she cannot be treated or rehabilitated – even in captivity – they have vowed to return the animal to her pod to spend the remainder of her days with her family.

The small pod of orcas is a subject of intense focus for the NOAA.

Experts hope to protect J50 so that she can grow up and reproduce — critical for a total population of 75 whales that have not had a successful pregnancy in three years.

The most recent calf was born to Tahlequah, or J35. However, the 20-year-old mother broke the hearts of watchers across the globe who were touched by the story of the grieving whale. 

Last month it was revealed that J35, who had been clinging onto her dead calf for more than two weeks and swimming for 1,000 miles, had finally let go of her baby. 

She nearly lost track of her pod after falling behind during her time of distress. 

Orcas are highly sociable creatures that live in large groups known as pods, if she lost her group and became isolated, she would have suffered potentially life-threatening food shortage, experts warned.   

The southern resident killer whales don’t have enough chinook salmon, a staple of their diet. They also face threats from toxic contamination as well as vessel noise and disturbances that disrupt their ability to communicate and forage.

There hasn’t been a successful birth in the population since 2015. Losing J50 would also mean losing her reproductive potential.

NOAA Fisheries said the next steps could include doing a hands-on physical exam, which could lead to quick medical treatment and release. 

Another option at that point would be holding her in a marine net pen in Puget Sound for a short time for rehabilitation and medical care before returning her to the wild to reunite with her family.

J50 has lagged behind her group in the ocean, at times trailing for miles, raising questions about what criteria would be used to determine if she has separated enough for scientists to attempt capture.

NOAA Chris Yates said J50 would have to show more extreme behavior than what has been exhibited thus far, and scientists will act if they don’t believe she will be able to reconnect with her pod.

An international team of Canadian and US whale experts has mounted an intensive effort to help the orca since concerns were first raised in mid-July.

They have taken breath and fecal samples, but have as yet been unable to determine still don’t know for certain what’s wrong with J50.

Response teams have tried to give her medication to help with parasitic worms, which they believe she could have based on fecal samples taken from her mother.

Teams have also dropped live salmon from a boat as J50 and her pod swam behind – a test to see whether fish could be used as a means of delivering medication.

Drone images showed J50 much thinner than she was last year. 

Her mother, known as J16, has also declined in the past month, perhaps because of the burden of helping catch and share food with J50, experts speculated.

‘We don’t want to take her from her mom where we have a J35 situation,’ Mr Gaydos said ‘These are very hard questions to answer and I think that right now the good thing is we’re talking about all the options.’

NOAA Fisheries announced two meetings in Washington state this weekend – in Friday Harbor and Seattle – to get public input around the rescue efforts.

What to do to help J50 has generated intense emotional reactions on social media and other forums. 

Some have pleaded with federal officials to do everything they can to save her, including feeding her or capturing her. 

Others worry more intervention would stress her and her family members.

They believe nature should be allowed to run its course.

‘We would love J50 to survive,’ said Susan Berta, co-founder of the Orca Network, an advocacy group. ‘At what point are we doing more harm than good?’ 

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