An emergency plan aims to medicate and feed J50, a struggling young southern resident killer whale scientists fear may not have long to live.

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The emergency effort to save a critically ill orca whale is an experiment without precedent.

An international team of scientists is piloting techniques to treat a wild, free-swimming orca, one of the largest predators on Earth. The effort includes serving up live fish pumped with medicine and playing a unique tone that one researcher likened to a “dinner bell.”

A federal permit approved Aug. 8 provides the clearest look yet at the details of an operation that raises questions even for those involved about the proper limits of human intervention.

“It’s constantly a topic in our minds and in our conversations, ‘Are we doing more harm than good?’ ” said Sarah Wilkin. She is a national stranding- and emergency-response coordinator based in Silver Spring, Maryland, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is leading the rescue.

The operation in the Washington waters of the Salish Sea could change — or even be discontinued — depending on J50’s condition, and how she and her family respond to intervention.

The effort to save J50 was devised as the plight of critically endangered southern resident killer whales was pushed into the world spotlight by Tahlequah, or J35, one of J50’s relatives. Tahlequah gave birth on July 24 to a female calf that lived only half an hour. She clung to the calf, swimming more than 1,000 miles for at least 17 days, refusing to let her baby go. The sight of her bearing her sad burden day after day moved people around the world.

The whales are a signature of Puget Sound, the transboundary waters of the Salish Sea, and even the outer coast, where the orcas forage for salmon nearly as far south as San Francisco.

With only 75 whales left in the southern resident population, which is unique in the world, an international team of experts is working to prevent the loss of another member of the family.

Always small for her age, J50, at 3½ years old, is now so thin the bones of her head show; most orcas that skinny have died. Scientists fear she may not have long to live.

The team assembled to devise and execute the plan includes veterinarians and biologists from SeaWorld, the Vancouver Aquarium, the U.S. Navy, various nonprofits and NOAA.

Partners in the effort include the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife — which is providing hatchery chinook to be served to J50 alive and swimming — and the Lummi Nation. The tribe is delivering the salmon using its law-enforcement boat, carrying the fish from a dock in Bellingham to wherever in Washington waters J50 can be located — and fed.

A complex operation

The permit governing the operation outlines a complex approach to a difficult problem. How to feed and medicate a wild whale — without doing more harm than good.

While J50 has been shot with a dart once to deliver a dose of antibiotics, scientists think she may be suffering from an infection, possibly fungal pneumonia. Antifungal medications and worming medication to tackle internal parasites can only be given by mouth.

Lab results from fecal material collected from J50s family show the presence of intestinal worms. While it is not known if the fecal material came specifically from her, scientists are adding a wormer to her medications.

The worm is not usually a problem in healthy animals. But in animals that are emaciated or otherwise compromised, the parasite can penetrate the stomach lining, introducing bacterial infection to the bloodstream, or bore into internal organs, NOAA announced Friday night in a posting on its online update page for J50.

The medications are intended to help J50 get on with gaining weight and a return to health. Salmon are being provided to J50 primarily as a delivery for medication, Wilkin said.

“Everyone has been very clear they don’t want to embark on some kind of longterm feeding program for the purpose of feeding,” Wilkin said. But J50 has lost about 20 percent of her body weight and also needs hydration. Orcas get all their hydration from fish, which is 70 percent water.

To see if she eats the fish, the operation will be photographed by a drone overhead and observed by scientists on a second boat at close range as the fish are sluiced through a plastic tube from the back of the Lummi boat. The tube’s exit is below the surface of the water.

A fish scale will be taken off the salmon before it is fed to J50; DNA analysis will match it with any fish scales captured floating on the water. That’s if she eats. J50 took no visible notice of the fish when eight were fed to her on a first trial Aug. 13.

Special care is being taken to avoid J50 learning to associate boats with being fed, or with a particular person feeding her fish.

A device to play a unique tone, specially manufactured for the operation, can be played underwater as fish are fed, so she will associate the tone — and only the tone — with the fish. “Almost like … a dinner bell,” said Jeff Foster, a biologist involved in the feeding operation.

The last thing the biologists want is to teach orcas to start soliciting fish from boats, Foster said. The idea is that if only the tone means fish, the sound of a boat — without the tone — should not.

Feeding the fish from a tube below the surface is to avoid creating habituation to being fed by a particular person. Highly intelligent and with excellent vision, even through the water and into the air above, orcas would easily and quickly catch on to a person passing out fish, said Brad Hanson, a biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle who is leading the effort in the field.

The plan envisions feeding J50 up to 60 pounds of live chinook a day, as conditions allow. To do this, the Lummi will position their boat 50 to 100 meters in front of J50, preferably when she is off by herself. They will put the fish right in front of her in the bubble slipstream behind the boat, pacing her and staying with her as she moves.

To give her an advantage catching the live fish, scientists may clip the fins to slow the chinook down or stun the fish in fresh water before feeding them down the tube. Only once scientists determine J50 is actively and reliably consuming the salmon would individual fish be medicated, just before feeding.

To help biologists determine if she eats the fish, they may add empty pill capsules to the fish; they would float to the surface, marking her kill. Floating beads, corn or small tags that would pass through J50 may also be put in the fish, again to help scientists know if J50 eats it.

Scientists are considering other methods, too, to make it easier for scientists to know she took a bite, according to the permit.

A 6- to 12-inch biodegradable fishing line may first be attached to the snout or chin of the medicated fish, with another heavier line secured to the boat to help keep the fish swimming on the surface. The tethering would be discontinued if she is reliably eating the medicated fish — reducing the risk it would be taken by other members of her family.

She will be presented with a novel meal. The fish — in addition to being altered with the medicine, fishing lines and potentially clipped and stunned — are not the silver-bright salmon from the sea that orcas normally take. Instead these are salmon already transformed to their dark, freshwater phase.

No one knows how J50 will respond to what is presented to her. If medicated fish are successfully administered, veterinarians would then determine whether to continue supplemental feeding efforts and for how long.

While the plan immediately on the table is an attempt to do the best possible to help J50, it’s also a trial for intervening with nutritional supplementation and orally administered medicines for other compromised southern resident killer whales if similar situations arise in the future.

“Everything we learn and everything we try is going to improve our future capabilities,” Wilkin said.

Ethics of intervention

No one should be surprised at the emergency efforts to help fight off the whales’ extinction, in an environment that humans have so altered with urban and suburban development upstream, pollution and depletion of salmon, the whales’ primary food — especially chinook.

It’s a dire situation that forces ethical questions, as have other interventions in similar extreme situations, such as reintroducing species to places where they have been extirpated — and even assisting in migrations of plants and animals losing their home range as the climate changes and habitats are lost.

“We took this North American continent and mowed it down and replaced the plant and animal species with things we like, like lawns and cows,” said Dale Jamieson, professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University. “When it comes to keeping wild animals we like, it comes with all kinds of crazy things.

“I think alarm bells should go off when we cross lines. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be delivering medicine to a calf or feeding it, but we should recognize there is something wrong with this picture. We should be trying to get back to a world where we haven’t brought these animals to their knees.”

To Jamieson, there is no happy ending to the story, he said, even if the operation is successful. “We should see this as a pretty bad thing that we have to do because the alternative, which is also caused by us, is even worse.”

Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, said he is grateful for the emergency effort to prevent another death among the southern residents — the quel lhol mech ten, or “people under the water,” in his native language.

“The mother carrying that baby, it just shows how connected and bonded they are, how much they mean to each other,” Julius said.

But the underlying crisis pushing the whales to extinction must be addressed, Julius said.

“We are happy that something is happening, and there is some acknowledgment to what we have been saying for some time, and not just in regards to the resident killer whales, but the whole ecosystem, the Salish Sea, the salmon habitat, the rivers,” Julius said. “You have a system out of balance.

“We have sick whales. Starving whales. It’s sickening.”

Any help for J50 however remained out of reach along with the whales as of Saturday; J50 and her family had for days been on the outer coast on the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond the reach of response teams. NOAA has no permit to work in Canadian waters.