NOAA tracking J pod

U.S. efforts to feed starving young orca stymied at Canadian border

Canada is officially part of an operation to rescue Scarlet but unofficially appears to be encumbering the mission

The idea of an international emergency rescue operation to save a sick young orca sounds like the perfect premise for a Free Willy sequel. Officially, Canada and the U.S. are working together to save Scarlet (J-50), a three-and-a-half-year-old killer whale  whose condition has been described as “critical.”

In reality…

The unprecedented attempt to save one of the remaining 75 members of the endangered southern resident orca population by providing food and medicine seems less like a team effort that Canada is part of and more like an American plan Canadians are monitoring, if not blocking.

An examination of scat (feces) from Scarlet and two other members of her family revealed the presence of worms that aren’t fatal for healthy orcas, but might be to the undersized, underweight endangered southern resident.

While it’s not clear if any of the scat was Scarlet’s, the vet team “updated treatment priorities to include dewormer, in addition to an antibiotic.” That was the news from America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries West Coast Region (NOAA) (@NOAAFish_WCRO), which released this on their special orca update page and in a five-part tweet.

At the same time, Canada’s Department of Fisheries And Oceans (DFO) (@DFO_Pacific) was tweeting about parrotfeather plants and sperm whales.

While the DFO is part of the mission (which also includes the Lummi Nation in western Washington, the Vancouver Aquarium, SeaWorld and several other organizations), so far they’ve decided to wait and see what NOAA does when it comes to treatment. After American officials signed off on administering medicine, the DFO waited for approval to do the same because … dunno.

So, at the beginning of a five-alarm emergency rescue attempt, during which NOAA warned that the orca might only have “days to live,” Scarlet could only receive antibiotics in U.S. waters.

J50 and other members of J Pod. Photo: Candace Emmons / NOAA Fisheries

On August 8, I sent a polite query to two communications advisors at the DFO asking for an explanation.

No response.

Two days later, on August 10, I asked about the difference in U.S. and Canadian approaches during the press conference NOAA hosted and found the answer I received was … let’s go with vague.

I e-mailed another query to two DFO communications advisors on August 10 asking to clarify how and why treatment would be handled differently on our side of the 49th parallel. My questions were what are known in the journalism biz as softballs.

Cue crickets chirping.

While I waited for any response at all, one of the partners in the rescue (The Whale Sanctuary Project) reported on its website and Facebook page that Scarlet had entered Canadian waters and the operation to feed her was “aborted.”

I asked about this in a call-in press briefing about the operation hosted by NOAA and was told by the DFO that it didn’t happen.

After reassuring me there was nothing to see here, the DFO later acknowledged it didn’t have approval to feed the orca in Canadian waters.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that plans to feed Scarlet “would have to wait” because the orca had crossed into Canada. And The Seattle Times reported “NOAA has no permit to work in Canadian waters.”

So the feeding wasn’t “aborted” it just “had to wait” if the whale was unlucky enough to swim into Canada because… DFO? Anyone? Bueller?

Dr. Martin Haulena, Dr. Brad Hanson, and Trevor Foster prepare to administer an injection of antibiotics to J50 on Aug. 9, 2018. Photo: Katy Foster / NOAA Fisheries

Andrew Thomson, regional director of the fisheries management branch, told me in the press call that he was waiting for either NOAA or the Lummi to formally request permission to feed the whale. I was unable to follow-up and ask why DFO wouldn’t just go ahead and grant that permission, given the high-stakes operation underway.

On August 13, I re-sent my query with some new and admittedly blunter questions, now looping in three DFO communications advisors.

Cue those freaking crickets.

Meanwhile, NOAA sent me 11 e-mails answering questions about the rescue operation — often within minutes of my queries.

The next day I tried the DFO again and mentioned I was about to go on the radio to talk about Scarlet and was writing a story about her treatment for The Narwhal.       

Six days after my initial query I finally received my “answers.”

This was the full response to my five questions and my request to interview someone:

“We are continuing to work alongside NOAA Fisheries West Coast and other partners to investigate why J50 is in poor health, and are keeping a close eye on her, hoping to see her health improve. If further actions are needed, our decisions will be evidence-based. We are ready to respond quickly should the intervention need to occur in Canadian waters. We’ll take the best course of action for this whale and her pod without delay.”

Phew. Good thing our government agencies are no longer muzzled and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ushered in a new golden age of transparency.

In my examination of the DFO’s scat it appears their definitions of “quickly” and “without delay” include asking an unidentified overseer for approval to treat a critically ill patient known to vanish from our waters for months at a time.

I found the non-response shocking.

My editor at The Narwhal, Emma Gilchrist, was not so surprised. “In my experience, this treatment by Canadian officials is pretty par for the course,” she said.

Today, if I thought anyone would answer me, it’d be time for hardball questions like: “If Scarlet starves to death because no one signed off on feeding her in Canada, which Canadian official or organization would be responsible?”

If you’d like to know why Canada isn’t onboard with feeding this starving young orca as soon as humanly possible — and why the DFO wasn’t prepared to allow the orca to receive medical help the moment the Americans were — you’ll have to ask them. They’re not answering me.

In the meantime, when Scarlet returns to the Salish Sea, let’s hope — like DFO officials seem to be doing — that she stays in the U.S.

Mark Leiren-Young is the author of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, and host of the Skaana podcast, covering…

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