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Government shutdown blocks emergency response for struggling orcas

SEATTLE -- The government shutdown could be keeping our critically endangered southern resident orcas from getting the help they need.

Various groups took notice when prominent whale researcher Ken Balcomb announced at the turn of the new year that two of the whales, J17 and K25, were struggling and would likely be dead by summer.

But when the Lummi Nation reached out to the federal government Wednesday to orchestrate an emergency response, the email bounced back because NOAA Fisheries employees are furloughed.

The letter, signed by Lummi Nation secretary Lawrence Solomon, said, "We must act now if we are to save two of our ailing relatives in the Southern Resident Killer Whale population."

Solomon wrote to NOAA Fisheries Kristin Wilkinson that the news of struggling J17 and K25 came at a challenging time because, "the current federal government shutdown has halted an urgently needed response to this situation."

Organizations outside of the federal government can only work with the whales under federal permits. When NOAA, the Lummi Nation, marine mammal veterinarians and biologists responded to a dying three-and-a-half-year-old calf, J50, over the summer, they did so under an emergency response plan, permitted by U.S. and Canadian governments.

"We do see the urgent need with these two now as we did with J50," said Raynell Zuni, Lummi Nation's Senior Policy Advisor in the office of Sovereignty and Treaty Protection. "What we're asking for NOAA to do is to work with us to permit and feed these two and then work with us -- in collaboration as our trustee and with others that are experts in this area -- to establish a longer-term caring and feeding initiative."

While J50 did not survive despite the efforts to save her, those efforts did set a precedent for medical intervention of the southern resident population.

With these two struggling whales, the Lummi Nation said this government shutdown is keeping them and veterinarians from being able to conduct any sort of emergency response to treat them before it's too late.

Marine mammal biologists Katy and Jeff Foster are in contact with the Lummis about possible intervention and are in favor of taking action. They pointed out that administering medication to these orca does not take the place of the big-ticket items the state is considering because of the governor's orca task force.

"None of the short-term interventions are long-term sustainable solutions as a way to manage this population. However, that doesn't mean they're not needed," Katy Foster said. "It's really important that we do have a viable number of animals in the population by the time those things take effect."

Most of the state actions being considered will take years to make a difference. Many researchers we spoke to in connection with the whales would like to see short-term intervention go hand-in-hand with those efforts.

Martin Haulena, a veterinarian with Vancouver Aquarium who treated J50, said treating marine mammals in the wild is a heavy lift that requires a lot of resources and funding.

"The logistics involved with trying to do something like that are quite massive and especially without the resources of the U.S. federal government, boats, operators that can fly the drones, and of course, the permissions that we need to get," Haulena said. "We're at a standstill."

The shutdown is not the only challenge, according to Haulena. He said the emergency response effort for J17 or K25 would look much different than it did with J50, a calf.

Full-grown adults would require heavier medication doses and darts. Winter also complicates the effort because the orca do not spend as much time near land, often frequenting the ocean and out of range for researchers. The weather also makes the water choppier and more difficult to administer treatment.

But right now, multiple organizations are talking about the small window of opportunity with these struggling orca, who have been seen closer to shore the past couple of weeks.

However, the government shutdown is keeping NOAA Fisheries employees from being allowed to pick up their Blackberries or answer an email on their laptops, much less come up with an emergency response to save them.

 

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