Emaciated orca J50 may have a parasite that can bore into stomach lining, feds say

SEATTLE -- Initial findings from fecal samples taken from a southern resident orca pod that includes emaciated killer whale J50 found moderate levels of a parasite, a worm that can penetrate the stomach lining or bore into internal organs, NOAA Fisheries announced Friday night.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)  Fisheries has launched an emergency plan to try to save the life of J50, a 3 1/2-year-old female orca that appears ill and emaciated. There are only 75 orcas left in the pods that live in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea.

In addition to collecting fecal samples to try to gauge J50's  health, the rescuers have also given J50 antibiotics and inserted live chinook salmon into the Salish Sea ahead of J50 to make it easier for her to eat, but it was unclear if she ate any.

On Friday night, NOAA Fisheries tweeted, "Results from health samples are coming in from several top labs around the country. 1st finding is from a fecal sample collected last wknd from J16, J42, & J50. It found moderate levels of Contracaecum, a nematode parasite sometimes found in marine mammals.

"The worm is not usually a problem in healthy animals. But for animals that are emaciated or otherwise compromised, the parasite can penetrate the stomach lining, introducing bacterial infection to the bloodstream, or it can bore into internal organs.

"While we cannot be sure the sample came from J50, vet team has updated treatment priorities to include dewormer, in addition to an antibiotic. Both have proven successful & safe in other cetacreans," it said.

"The treatment should help J50 by reducing bacterial & parasitic burdens on her system so she can start regaining lost weight. The pod remains in open waters off Vancouver Island, beyond the reach (of) response teams."

NOAA Fisheries said its local partners here continue their watch for signs of J pod's return to the more protected waters of the Salish Sea so rescuers can resume trying to save J50's life.