Scientists are working around the clock to help a female orca last seen just days ago near Vancouver Island, emaciated and lethargic, but Canadian restrictions could pose a barrier.
J50, also known as Scarlet, is one of 75 southern resident killer whales that travel along the B.C. coast and down to California. There has been growing worry after scientists confirmed she is suffering from a syndrome called “peanut head,” where her head appears too small for her body and is most likely due to not getting enough food. A white spot has also been spotted near her blow hole, which could indicate an infection.
“Yesterday, we staged veterinarian supplies, including injection darts and antibiotics, in the area so that we could rapidly respond and treat the animal if sighted today and deemed necessary,” said Teri Rowles, a veterinarian with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told reporters in an update Tuesday.
J50 and her pod were last seen Saturday near Sooke, outside Victoria, but hasn’t been seen since perhaps because of the fog in the area, according to Paul Cottrell, marine mammals coordinator with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Last week, American and Canadian scientists said responders would attempt to feed the underweight killer whale chinook salmon filled with medication if needed. It’s believed this kind of strategy hasn’t been used before.
Once spotted, biologists will do a health assessment, grab a sample collection, and, if necessary, administer antibiotics.
“Right now, we are concerned about infection, but we don’t know with what or what organ – all we have to go on is her physical condition and that decline [in condition],” Rowles said.
But even though veterinarians on either side of the border are working together, if J50 is spotted swimming in Canadian waters, feeding the animal would not be allowed under DFO regulations.
The Canadian government has limited the chinook salmon fishery recently to help the recovery of the southern resident killer whales. It also imposed a minimum distance of 200 metres for vessels to stay away from killer whales and is conducting research on the impact of pollution.
Cottrell said the government is working quickly to license a permit for the food and medication darts needed.
J50 might also have died, Rowles said, as infections, entanglement and ship strikes are the leading causes of death for these animals.
At this point, scientists are just waiting to spot the pod again and get close enough to assess her, she added.
“It is very possible she has succumbed at this point and we may never see her again,” Rowles said. “We are hopeful there is still a chance that we will be able to assist her with medical treatment to give her enough time to get nourishment and treat infections if indeed that is what is causing her decline.”