Feds weigh emergency plan to feed emaciated orca J50 at sea if needed to try to save its life

SEATTLE -- The federal government is assessing the health of the emaciated southern resident orca J50 and evaluating whether it should try an emergency plan to feed the killer whale live Chinook salmon dosed with medicine at sea, a NOAA official said Thursday night.

Lynne Barre, director of the protected resources division for the West Coast Region of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), told Q13 News, "We have some work to do to put a plan together. Right now, they are collecting photographs and video from a drone ... in the field."

She said they will continue to try to collect fecal and breath samples from the ailing whale.

"One of the next steps is evaluate if it's possible to use live salmon to deliver emergency treatment in the form of medication," she said.  "We would need more details and approval under that (NOAA) permit to move forward on steps to deliver salmon ... but the plan is actively being discussed and details are being put together. One of our partners is in touch with the Lummi Nation on getting the live Chinook salmon to use."

Biologist Deborah Giles with the Center for Conservation Biology, told Q13 News that earlier this month she and her crew spotted a 3½-year-old orca that was "severely emaciated," with her bones and ribs showing. That is J50.

"You shouldn't see bones on a whale," Giles said. "You should just see a fat, blubbery whale."

The 3½-year-old was part of the southern resident "baby boom" that occurred when 11 calves were born between 2014-2016. Only five of the calves from the "baby boom" remain.

Giles said J50's breath was particularly rank, and indicated the calf was in ketosis, burning fat to stay alive. The last time she noticed an orca's breath was that bad was just a month before another orca, J1, died.

The southern residents face problems like increased vessel noise, toxic waters, and, primarily, a shortage of food.

Recent attention has been on another orca, J35, which has been holding onto its dead calf for at least 10 days in what researchers are calling "a tour of grief."

Without abundant salmon, the southern residents are starving. When they can’t eat, they access their fat storage, which is full of contaminants. And with boat noise, they have a harder time using echolocation to find what little salmon remain.