Southern Resident Killer Whale: Questions and Answers on J50 Emergency Response
In August 2018, an international team of biologists began response efforts for J50, a member of the Southern Resident killer whale population. The following are questions and answers about the J50 emergency response.
Starting in early August, an international team of biologists mobilized and began responding to an emaciated and ailing three year-old killer whale (born December 2014), J50 (also known as Scarlet), of the critically endangered Southern Resident population that frequents the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest. J50 appears lethargic at times with periods of activity, including feeding. Scientists observing her agree that she is in poor condition and may not survive. Responders from NOAA Fisheries and partner agencies and organizations in both the United States and Canada continue to monitor J50 and are exploring options to provide medical treatment, including delivering antibiotics and nutrition. More information on J50 and the status of response efforts can be found on our J50 webpage.
J50 is underweight, why not feed her?
The team remains deliberate and careful in responding to support J50. While we are exploring feeding trials only as a way to deliver medication or a vitamin supplement to J50 as recommended by veterinarians, we must balance the benefits of medical treatment against the risk that feeding could make her dependent on supplied food or disturb the pod. As urgent as J50’s condition is, we must constantly consider the well-being of the pod as a whole.
Long-term feeding is not a realistic recovery strategy for Southern Resident killer whales. We are trying to help them by addressing the threats they face. When it comes to their food supply, we are working to increase abundance of Chinook salmon, their preferred prey, through numerous salmon recovery and management actions, such as improving passage around dams, restoring important salmon habitat, and carefully managing salmon hatchery operations and fishing harvest. We are also working with many partners to address vessel disturbance and noise that can interfere with the whales foraging, as well as minimizing pollution that contaminates their food and collects in their tissue.
Who else is involved in this emergency response effort?
The many partners involved in this effort are listed on our dedicated J50/J35 webpage. Only through their expertise, knowledge, resources, and support could we attempt this unprecedented medical response to support J50. Many of the costs to support the response have come in the form of staff time and using existing resources, such as boats and sampling equipment both within NOAA Fisheries and from among the partners.
What is NOAA Fisheries doing to limit the impact of the emergency response for J50 on other members of the J pod?
The emergency response is authorized under a Marine Mammal Protection Act permit issued by NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. The permit includes required protections to minimize and mitigate impacts to J50 and the rest of J Pod, such as close coordination of vessel traffic around the whales and closely managing the amount of time research or science vessels spend near the whales.
How is NOAA Fisheries helping to provide the whales with more salmon?
We have both near-term and long-term actions in place to provide more fish to Southern Resident killer whales. One of our most important initiatives in recovering salmon is the restoration of degraded salmon habitat, especially for Puget Sound stocks that are among the most important and accessible to the whales. Through funding from NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund and support from many partners, crews are restoring hundreds of acres of stream and riparian habitat throughout rivers draining into the Salish Sea and beyond throughout the Northwest and the Columbia River Basin. For example, in 2016 the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program began providing annual funding for salmon habitat restoration in rivers surrounding the Salish Sea to benefit both salmon and the whales. Several of these habitat projects are now complete and researchers are now documenting more salmon returning to the restored habitat. We are also working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to identify opportunities in the near term to increase hatchery production of key Chinook salmon stocks to support the whales, consistent with longer-term recovery of wild fish stocks.
Food quantity is just one issue facing the whales. Also important is reducing vessels and noise that can make it difficult for the whales to use echolocation to find food, which can counteract the many efforts to improve the abundance of fish populations.
Curbing pollution in the environment is also a priority. Pollutants ranging from pharmaceutical products flushed down our toilets to automobile oil have contributed to the degradation of the Salish Sea ecosystem, and also affect the whales. The pollutants can be absorbed directly by the whales when in coastal waters, as well as be ingested through the fish they eat, bioaccumulating in the whales’ tissues.
Can you breach the Snake River dams to provide the whales with more salmon?
An adequate supply of salmon is critical to supporting a healthy population of Southern Residents. A recent effort to prioritize West Coast salmon stocks based on their importance to the Southern Residents led to some important findings. While the most critical stocks include those that return to the Fraser River in British Columbia and those returning to the rivers draining into Puget Sound, the whales also rely on salmon stocks up and down the West Coast, including those returning to the Snake, Upper Columbia, Klamath, and Sacramento rivers. This diversity of rivers and salmon stocks, each with its own life history and migration timing, provide salmon for the Southern Residents throughout the year.
Populations of some salmon stocks are now more abundant than they were in the 1960s, before the four lower Snake River dams were built. For example, hatchery production, improved passage at dams, and other steps have helped Snake River fall Chinook salmon returns rebound strongly to some of their highest numbers in decades. The average abundance of wild and hatchery spring and summer Chinook salmon has also increased substantially and is now at its highest point in decades. (See below chart, which displays returns after the impacts of harvest and predators.)
Some of these salmon runs are listed under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA Fisheries and numerous partners have collaboratively developed recovery plans for endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead that outline strategies on all fronts to promote their recovery, and eventual delisting from the Endangered Species Act. These plans include safer passage for fish around dams, extensive restoration of important rearing habitat, science-based improvements in hatchery operations, and adjustments in harvest. All these factors have an important role in putting salmon and steelhead on the road to recovery, and numerous local groups are actively implementing many of the actions. We have seen positive results from these collaborative efforts with states, tribes, watershed groups, and other partners. We have much more work to do, but we are confident that these roadmaps and partnerships will achieve lasting recovery.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are now evaluating different options for operating the dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers, including breaching of one or more dams. The process will conclude with a decision in 2021. After that process is complete, if dam breaching is recommended, then those agencies would need to seek Congressional authorization for such action. NOAA Fisheries cannot order dam breaching, but we do consult with the agencies about the impacts of the dams on salmon runs.
Is NOAA Fisheries recommending increasing hatchery production to boost Chinook salmon for the whales?
Providing additional hatchery fish is one short-term strategy that could help supply the Southern Residents with more Chinook salmon, their preferred prey. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) operates many hatcheries in the Puget Sound region, some with federal funding, and is pursuing this option. One of NOAA Fisheries’ roles is to provide support and review of hatchery operations to ensure that they do not jeopardize naturally spawning salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. We will work with WDFW to ensure that any hatchery actions that go forward also protect wild salmon stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Should the public stop buying salmon to leave more for the whales?
Seafood consumers can rest assured that when buying U.S. harvested salmon, these are managed sustainably and with careful consideration of the impacts to endangered and threatened species, including the Southern Residents.
Fisheries managers consider the needs of Southern Resident killer whales before commercial fishing catch limits are authorized. Fisheries within the range of the Southern Residents undergo extensive environmental review by NOAA Fisheries to be sure that harvest levels protect both the salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act and listed Southern Resident killer whales. NOAA Fisheries is further moving toward Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management, which considers not just the health of individual target fish species but also their roles within the ecosystem, such as the connections between the whales and the salmon they depend on.
Salmon vary by region in terms of health and availability to the whales. Some are wild and some are hatchery-raised. Some are flourishing and others are endangered. All are managed using strict regulations that help ensure we're balancing the needs of people, the whales, and other marine life. Get more consumer information on all salmon species at Fishwatch.
The solution to the salmon recovery challenge is not whether fisheries, whales, or other predators get the biggest piece of the salmon “pie.” Rather, the solution is to continue to enlarge the salmon pie. We believe the best way to do that is by addressing the root cause and restoring more quality salmon habitat that once supported robust and thriving West Coast salmon runs. NOAA Fisheries funds this restoration to the tune of scores of millions of dollars each year.
Finally, fishermen in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation are among the greatest advocates for salmon protection and recovery. We need them to continue to support healthy runs and to fish in ways that protect the threatened and endangered salmon stocks we all want to see recover.
Under what circumstances would you consider capturing J50?
The team responding to J50 includes the world’s experts in the diagnosis, treatment, and care of killer whales. The team is constantly weighing new information and balancing the benefits and risks of providing treatment against the alternative of taking no action. While the current response plan does not include capture as an option, we are considering future scenarios where experts might conclude that temporary human care in some form is warranted. Any consideration of taking J50 into human care must be reviewed by an expert panel and approved by NOAA Fisheries.
NOAA Fisheries would consider taking J50 into human care only in very extreme and specific circumstances where it was determined to be critical for her survival. For example, if J50 were to strand alive on a beach or separate from her mother and J Pod entirely, making it likely that she would die, then the team will consider the option of temporary rehabilitation with the goal of releasing her back into the wild as soon as possible. This would be similar to a situation in 2002 with a juvenile from A Pod, A73, also known as Springer.
There is no direct precedent for this emergency response to support J50, who is currently in an emaciated condition but remains with her family. NOAA Fisheries, with our partners, are giving thorough consideration to all response scenarios and possible consequences of each. Field teams may need to move quickly, and by thinking through all options in advance, they can be prepared to do so. The goal is to treat J50 to save her life in such a way that minimizes disturbance and stress to her and to all individuals within J Pod.
Southern Resident killer whales have sophisticated social bonds not unlike human families, with brothers and sisters remaining together with their mothers, and often their aunts and uncles. These bonds were tested and sometimes broken during the era of killer whale captures nearly 50 years ago, and we remain both aware of and respectful of these bonds. While captive care has supported the recovery of some highly endangered species, the prospect of temporary care for J50 carries serious implications for the Southern Residents. We must constantly weigh the risk to both J50 and the rest of J Pod of such an extraordinary step, versus the risk of less intrusive options.
How would you care for J50 in captivity, even if just temporarily?
In order to be prepared for any scenario, we are currently exploring what it would take to provide such care. We learned a great deal from A73 (also known as Springer), a young female Northern Resident killer whale that became separated from her pod in Puget Sound in 2002. NOAA Fisheries and its many partners ultimately decided that for Springer to survive to adulthood where she would contribute to the population, we needed to work together to capture her, provide care and treatment, and return her to her Northern Resident family.
Like J50, A73 was underweight, and her medical condition was uncertain. She was also at risk from becoming habituated to following boats and interacting with humans. A73 was held temporarily in a net pen for about one month. Biologists took great care to ensure that she did not become familiar with the humans involved in her care and did not associate people with food, so that they could return her to the wild. For example, biologists watched her through closed-circuit cameras that kept them largely out of A73’s sight. Veterinarians prescribed treatment, including antibiotics and a dewormer to eliminate parasitic worms thought to be an extra burden on her system, and A73’s appetite and condition improved. In July 2002, after confirming she was healthy enough to return to her family without posing a risk to them, teams transported A73 by boat into Canadian waters, where she rejoined the Northern Resident population and has since given birth to two calves.
There are very important differences between J50 and A73. A73 was in better nutritional condition at the time, and could forage on her own. We do not know whether that is true for J50. Also, A73 had strayed far from the rest of her pod and was without her mother. Therefore, considerations of family bonds and stress on the other pod members were not a factor in A73’s case. For J50, any consideration of temporary care would be based on the specifics of J50’s condition at the time and potential impacts to her pod.
What can the public do now to help?
Keep your distance
Boaters can help by keeping clear of the whales to minimize stress on J50 and J35, who recently lost her calf, and to keep the area clear for response teams to observe J50 and swiftly take action to conduct veterinary assessments on J50 when able.
Vessel noise and disturbance can disrupt the whales’ communication and feeding, as well as increase the energy they expend, so extra vigilance in minimizing noise and interactions can be beneficial at this time. Vessels are required at all times to stay at least 200 yards from killer whales and stay out of their paths per federal regulations.
Help restore critical Chinook salmon habitat
Everyone can help by supporting salmon habitat restoration efforts and salmon conservation. Many Chinook salmon runs that the Southern Resident killer whales eat are also listed under the Endangered Species Act, and efforts to recover these salmon will also benefit the whales. In July, NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife developed a list of Chinook salmon stocks that are important to the whales’ recovery to help inform Chinook salmon recovery and habitat restoration efforts.
Actions to help protect and restore salmon habitat include: conserving water and electricity; reducing pesticide and fertilizer use and preventing their runoff into waterways; and volunteering with your local stream or watershed group to plant native species, clean up litter, and remove invasive species.
Everyone can help by reducing pollution in West Coast rivers and coastal waters to prevent and reduce contaminants reaching the whales and the salmon they eat. The main contaminants of concern are PCBs (e.g., found in plastics, paints, rubber, and electrical equipment), DDT (found in pesticides), and PBDEs (fire retardant chemicals found, for example, in mattresses, TVs, toasters). During times of nutritional stress, the effects of the high levels of contaminants in this top predator can compromise their health by impairing immune function and interfering with reproduction.
There are many little things we can all do at home, school, and work to improve the environment and waters on which killer whales, salmon, and other marine species depend.