By Christopher Dunagan
Killer whale experts who are not employed by the federal government are preparing to assess the health conditions of two Southern Resident orcas that appear malnourished and may be dying. Any decisions regarding potential medical treatment would be made later.
During a conference call on Tuesday, marine mammal biologists, veterinarians and other orca experts decided to take minimally invasive steps, such as collecting breath and fecal samples from the whales.
“What came out was a unanimous decision that we should try to do something,” said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with SeaDoc Society who helped organize the meeting. “Everyone on the phone was saying, why should we say we can’t do anything without at least getting some health samples first.”
Federal biologists and administrators with NOAA Fisheries have jurisdiction over the 75 critically endangered orcas, but they have been furloughed by the month-long shutdown of the federal government furlough. [The 35-day partial government shutdown ended on January 25th, 2019 and furloughed federal employees have now returned to work.] Kristin Wilkinson, regional marine mammal stranding coordinator for the agency, was called back to duty and was the only federal official on Tuesday’s call.
Jeff Foster, who has worked closely with marine mammals for decades, was tasked with collecting biological samples from the orcas when he gets a break in the weather, provided that the whales are found within the inland waters of Puget Sound.
The two whales of greatest concern are J17, a 42-year-old female named Princess Angeline, and K25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter. Both are reported with “peanut head,” a condition in which an orca has lost so much body fat that a depression appears behind the blowhole. Most of the time, this condition leads to death.
Foster said he has the federal permits needed to take fecal samples by closely following the whales and scooping up fecal matter in a net. The permits are for population-level health studies, so data is likely to be collected on other orcas as well. Such a sample from Princess Angeline or Scoter could reveal the presence of intestinal parasites and other potential problems. But if they haven’t been eating, there might be no sample at all. Fecal samples from other orcas could reveal what most are eating at this time of year when salmon — their primary prey — are few.
A breath sample from an orca’s powerful blow could reveal pathogens, such as bacteria or viruses. Such organisms could be affecting one or both whales physically and causing them not to eat. The breath sample can be taken by driving a boat alongside the animal, then reaching out with a long pole that has a collection device on the end.
No plans have been made for treatment of any condition that may be discovered, Gaydos said. Getting samples analyzed is the first step. Other federal officials involved with the Southern Residents could be called back on an emergency basis to take part in further actions, he noted.
The conference call followed a letter to NOAA Fisheries from the Lummi Nation. The letter, signed by tribal secretary Lawrence Solomon, made a strong case for actions to save the two Southern Resident Killer Whales that appear emaciated.
“We are faced with the loss of two more relatives in the SRKW and know that the loss of K25 and J17 will likely lead to additional losses,” he wrote. “We all have a sacred obligation to take action, now, and we need your help and support to save our relatives.”
Kurt Russo, senior policy analyst for the Lummi Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, joined Tuesday’s conference call. He said the spiritual relationship between Lummi tribal members and killer whales goes back thousands of years.
“We have a moral obligation to act,” he said after the conference call. “You can’t say there is nothing we can do. Do an assessment to see what is going on. I was impressed with everyone on the call today. We want to work with this as far as we can. But if no one else will act, we will. The Lummis have an inherent right to do that.”
Learning from Scarlet
The death of J50, a four-year-old female named Scarlet, provided important lessons for moving forward, Gaydos said. As Scarlet’s condition deteriorated last summer, medical experts tried to help her. The intervention included unsuccessful efforts to get useable breath and fecal samples from her, followed by treatment with antibiotics for a possible infection that was never identified.
Saving Scarlet was considered a high priority, because of her young age and potential to produce several offspring to rebuild the population. Some consider Princess Angeline a lower priority, because she may already be beyond her reproductive years. Others, however, point out that she is the matriarchal leader of her clan, providing cohesion and special knowledge that would be a major loss if she dies.
Princess Angeline is the mother of J35, a 21-year-old female named Tahlequah who stirred emotions worldwide last summer when she stayed with her dead calf for 17 days, often carrying it on her head.
Foster said he hopes the orcas will be swimming in Puget Sound when the weather improves, so he can begin learning about the condition of the two failing animals and their pods. The two whales belong to J and K pods, which have been sighted in Puget Sound as recently as Monday but are known to travel out to the Pacific Ocean and up into Canada at this time of year. Predicting where they will be at any time is impossible, Foster noted.
Initial funding for the effort to obtain breath and fecal samples is being provided by the Whale Sanctuary Project, with which Foster is affiliated. Other possible funding sources have been identified as well, he said.
— Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.