Non-federal employees plan to study health of sick orcas as shutdown continues

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ORCAS ISLAND, Wash. -- A group of scientists not employed by the federal government is coming together to make sure the shutdown doesn't impact one of the state's most vulnerable species.

Marine biologists, veterinarians and southern resident orca experts will assess the health conditions of J17 and K25 in the coming days. They plan to gather fecal and breath sample from the ailing orca, and then send them to the lab for analysis.

Typically, work like this would fall under the jurisdiction of NOAA fisheries. But most NOAA workers have been furloughed during the month-long government shutdown.

Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with the SeaDoc Society, helped organize the assessment. It's not fair to the critically endangered southern resident orca to potentially suffer due to a shutdown in the government, he said.

"Rather than saying we don't think there's anything we can do we need to see if we can go look at these animals," Gaydos said.

Center for Whale Research founding director Ken Balcomb said photos taken of a southern resident orca known as J17 on New Year’s Eve showed the 42-year-old female has so-called peanut head — a misshapen head and neck caused by starvation.

The 27-year-old male known as K25 is failing, also from lack of sufficient food. He lost his mother, K13, in 2017 and is not successfully foraging on his own.

In 2018, the southern resident orca population lost three members. NOAA spearheaded an effort to save a young, sick whale known as J50 first by testing her fecal samples then by administering antibiotics. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and she died.

Gaydos said many of the researchers who tried to help J50 will be present for the tests of the two ailing orcas. If the tests show the orcas suffer from ailments such as stomach parasites, the group could try to get permitting from the federal government to administer antibiotics.

Gaydos is certain the biologists impacted by the shutdown would want to be out on the water to help.

"They'd want to be here, they'd want to be working," Gaydos said. "It's not their fault the government is shutdown."

NOAA scientist Kristin Wilkinson, the regional marine mammal stranding coordinator, has been called back into duty since the shutdown started. She's working with the team of scientists to help analyze the struggling orcas.

The scientists' decision followed a letter from the Lummi Nation to the government, urging action to help the starving orcas.

Only 75 southern resident orcas remain.

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