A rescue operation involving “hands-on physical examination” may be the next step to help an young, emaciated southern resident killer whale swimming around B.C. waters.
On Wednesday, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said capturing J50, a four-year-old orca suffering from starvation, would only be an option if it didn’t harm other whales in J Pod and is the only option to allow her to contribute to the recovery of the population.
“The overriding priority of rescue is to evaluate, treat and rehabilitate J50 to give her the greatest chance of survival while ensuring her return and reunification with her family as soon as possible,” the agency said.
U.S. and Canadian researchers have been tracking the mammal for weeks, trying to find ways to treat her. Scientists confirmed last week through fecal samples that she is suffering from parasitic worms. J50 also has “peanut-head syndrome,” in which her head is smaller than her body as a result of malnutrition. She has been given antibiotics twice using darts and was last spotted Friday.
NOAA’s Lynne Barre said that despite efforts, J50’s health has been deteriorating. Marine biologists are looking to give her deworming medication as soon as they can, but results so far are less-than positive.
“Based on her current condition, and we are really concerned about her ability to survive,” she said.
Next steps could also include rapid treatment and return to the sea, or short-term care and rehab to improve her chances of survival, officials said, adding she would be returned back to the ocean once well enough.
“Remaining in captivity permanently does not meet out our objective and is an outcome that we very much intend to avoid,” said Chris Yates, NOAA assistant regional administrator.
Rescuing J50 would only happen if she became stranded or separated from her pod, which includes her mother.
These next steps won’t be taken before consultation with the public, the agency said. Two public meetings will be hosted this week in Washington State.
The response by officials in helping the ailing orca have been met with some criticism by conservationists. Seven conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government last week, calling for more protection over endangered orcas along the coastline.
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