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Young West Coast orca in a tough slog to keep up with her pod: experts

Killer whale J50 is shown near the Lime Kiln Lighthouse off the west side of San Juan Island, Washington, on August 11, 2018 handout photo. Whale researchers working to save an ailing killer whale have released live salmon into waters in front of the free-swimming orca. But they didn't see the critically endangered whale called J50 take any of the eight salmon dropped from a boat Sunday.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - NOAA Fisheries, Katy Foste
August 13, 2018 - 9:00 PM

VANCOUVER - A wildlife biologist says an ailing female killer whale off the West Coast of Washington state is "slogging along" with her pod, but is at times unable to keep up.

A veterinarian was able to dart J50 with a broad-spectrum antibiotic on Thursday, but Brad Hanson, a U.S. government fisheries biologist, said she still appears tired and was even moving backwards with the current when she was seen on the weekend.

The emaciated whale is part of the endangered southern resident population, which has just 75 members remaining. Canadian and American experts are taking unprecedented action to help the young orca recover.

Hanson said the 3-1/2-year-old isn't taking part in socialization common to these whales such as splashing, playing and jumping.

However, experts are encouraged that she appears interested in hunting for chinook salmon along with members of her pod, even though she hasn't been seen eating, he said Monday.

Hanson said they were able to test a feeding experiment with members of the Lummi Nation, who released about eight salmon from a vessel about 100 metres in front of J50. It wasn't clear if she ate any of those fish, he said.

Logistically, it was successful, Hanson said, noting the fish were deployed quickly.

"All in all, we were happy with that particular aspect of the plan. It's important to remember this type of thing has never been tried before and there were lots of things that could potentially go awry."

The eventual plan, if necessary, is to feed the whale salmon with medication inside.

The Canadian government hasn't been asked if the same such experiment can be carried out in Canadian waters.

Hanson said experts realize that feeding J50 could lead to habituation. They've taken steps to avoid that by using a deployment tube to send out the fish so the whales don't make an association with people and vessels.

"These animals can be quite intelligent and they have very good eyesight, so they do pick up on these things very quickly," he said. "Our concern is we're sort of in a situation with the condition of the animal that we felt this was warranted."

Sheila Thornton, lead killer whale research scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said officials want to ensure that any actions taken will benefit J50 while not having a negative impact on the rest of the population.

"At this time we are awaiting the outcome of both the breath and fecal samples to see if there is further intervention required."

Researchers were able to collect a few fecal samples from pod members on the weekend, but they are unsure if any of it is from J50.

Deborah Giles, a biologist at the Center of Conservation Biology at Washington University, said they'll be able to conduct genetic typing to discover which whale left the sample and will be able to test for stress or pregnancy hormones as well as for nutrition information.

Andrew Thomson, regional director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said vessels on the Washington and B.C. coasts are being encouraged to stay well away from J50 and her pod. While regulations say all vessels must stay at least 200 metres from a killer whale in Canadian waters, Thomson said last week he'd like to see vessels stay 500 metres away.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2018
The Canadian Press

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