The plan has been coming together for months as the agency announced public meetings, with just a few days' notice. It's been decades since the capture era here, when members from the same orca family were taken away and sold to aquariums.
Plans are being laid to capture J50, the ailing young orca, as efforts to help her in the wild have failed and her condition continues to deteriorate.
Lynne Barre leads the orca recovery effort for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She said the agency would act immediately to capture J50 if she becomes stranded — beached, or unable to swim on her own. But it was not so clear what the agency would do in an in-between situation, typical of J50’s behavior.
J50 is sometimes is apart from her family, but then rejoins them, and sometimes falls behind as the pod travels, but then later catches up. Sometimes the agency itself is not clear on what is next for J50 and has misjudged, such as in an ominous news release on Sept. 3 announcing she was not seen with her family for three days and may be dead. The whale turned up just hours later.
The agency does not intend to put J50 in permanent captivity, Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for protected resources for NOAA on the West Coast, said in a press teleconference Wednesday morning. The goal is to get J50 back to health and back with her family. But any further intervention to help J50 will depend on also being able to intervene without harming the rest of her family in J pod and the southern resident population.
If veterinarians and others involved in assessing J50 in the field determine J50 cannot be treated or rehabilitated, they would return her to J pod to spend the remainder of her life with her family.
The first public hearings on the controversial plan have been scheduled with just a few days’ notice: 7 p.m. Saturday at Friday Harbor High School in Friday Harbor, and 1 p.m. Sunday at the University of Washington Haggett Hall Cascade Room in Seattle.
The objective, according to NOAA, is to protect her ability to grow up and reproduce — critical in a population of 75 whales that has not had a successful pregnancy in three years. The most recent calf was born to Tahlequah, or J35. The female calf died after only a half-hour — but her mother clung to the carcass for at least 17 days, refusing to let it go as she swam more than 1,000 miles through the trans-boundary waters of the Salish Sea, raising worldwide concern.
Tahlequah has become a symbol of the orcas’ peril due to human-caused pollution, underwater noise from vessels and recreational boats, and most of all, hunger. The southern residents are strictly fish eaters and depend in summer almost exclusively on chinook, another declining species.
NOAA has experience in the capture and rehabilitation of live orcas. The agency in 2002 captured Springer, or A73, a northern-resident orca whale. However, that was a very different situation: Springer was an orphan, frequenting the Vashon ferry dock and in poor health. NOAA successfully rehabilitated her in a netted-off cove before returning her to her family. She has since had two calves. The same net pen is awaiting J50, at the NOAA research facility at Manchester, Kitsap County.
The agency already has gone to extraordinary lengths to try to help J50, who is more emaciated than any whale known to survive. Shots of antibiotics have been delivered by dart, and samples of her breath taken with a petri dish held over her blow hole as she swims. A dart full of deworming medication is still planned. But so far veterinarians still don’t know what is ailing her, said Joe Gaydos, lead scientist with the nonprofit SeaDoc Society and the vet who has most recently seen J50, on Friday.
“This is a very sick whale,” Gaydos said. “She is probably so thin now … she is actually working harder to swim in the water. She is a very sick animal.” Updates on NOAA’s website with recent photos of J50 show a sharply defined indentation in her head because of lack of fat.
Of 13 other emaciated orcas seen in the past, 11 have died, and none were as thin as J50. “She has had this extreme emaciation for well over a month now and she just continues to get thinner,” Gaydos said. “We don’t think she has that long.”
Live capture imposes a stress of its own — a risk NOAA’s team has evaluated. But if J50 dies while being trapped, Gaydos said, she probably would not have survived anyway.
If she is captured and rehabilitated, J50 would have tests to pass before any attempt to return her to the wild and unite her with her family, including showing she can forage for live fish on her own and is disease-free.
Some oppose the capture plan. Pia VanHanen, of Seattle, has already started an online petition to stop the capture, with 478 signatures so far. “We cannot let capture become a viable option. It crosses the line,” she said.
Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, said he has refused to take part in any capture operation and that J50’s chances of recovery are slim. Even if she does survive, “She is a runt whale, she won’t ever grow up to reproduce,” he said.
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Orcas have strong family ties that endure for life. Separation of young orcas from their mothers and families was routine during the capture era in Washington state, when orcas, especially in J50’s family, were rounded up and taken to aquariums.
The youngest and smallest were targeted because they were the cheapest to ship. The piercing cries of orca parents as their young were taken away are well remembered by those who witnessed or took part in the captures in the ’60s and ’70s — including Jeff Foster, a member of a NOAA intervention team who used to capture orcas for aquariums and today is working for NOAA on the J50 response.
Ralph Munro, former secretary of state for Washington, helped stop the capture era after witnessing a roundup of orcas in Budd Inlet. He has never forgotten the trauma he witnessed to the whales as their families were separated, and said NOAA is going too far in its capture plan for J50.
“Having personally seen the stress of taking a whale from the pod, I think that they might be better to let nature take its course,” Munro said in an email. “It is terribly traumatic on the whale and the pod when they are separated.” He also questioned the participation of SeaWorld in the response plan for J50. A SeaWorld veterinarian is part of the team advising the effort, and SeaWorld is also helping to fund some of the killer-whale research being undertaken by NOAA.
“What the heck is NOAA doing, accepting money from Sea World over the past few years? Was that ever told to the public?” Munro said.
The aquarium theme-park chain was the customer for many of the captive whales taken from Washington waters — all but one of which have since died. Lolita lives today in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium.
SeaWorld has not taken an orca captive in nearly 40 years and also announced last year it had ceased its breeding program of captive orcas.
The Lummi Nation has been involved in the efforts so far to help J50, including a plan to feed her medicated fish.
“We hope and pray she will recover on her own,” said Jewell James, Lummi tribal member, who carved a totem pole for Lolita as part of the tribe’s activism for her release. “However, if she becomes stranded, completely separated from her family, we have an obligation to do what we can to help bring her back to health and return her to her family.”
Foster said by text Wednesday afternoon he was already out looking for J50, piloting his boat into Canadian waters, where the capture is also allowed.
“Trying to locate our little girl,” he said.