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'It's family,' say Lummi tribe members trying to save starving orca

 J-50 swims with sister J-42 on July 21. NOAA Fisheries photo, permit number 21368.
NOAA Fisheries/Katy Foster
J-50 swims with sister J-42 on July 21. NOAA Fisheries photo, permit number 21368.

The effort to save a sick, starving orca named J50 is a personal mission for Aaron Hillaire and Malcolm Owings of the Lummi Tribe.

“Hundreds and hundreds of years we’ve been around the orcas and it’s family, really,” Hillaire said.

He skippered a boat that collected a couple of Chinook salmon from tribal nets on Monday, then carried them in the waters off Orcas Island to get the logistics right. The goal: Keep the fish alive until they can be fed to J50.

“We learned some stuff, you know, bringing them out there,” he said afterward at the dock near Bellingham. “If the water’s too rough the water sloshes around, just what kind of speed can we get, what can we do. And we’re learning.”

Both men are fisheries enforcement officers with the tribe. Owings helped out on deck while Hillaire drove.

“Aaron called me last night: ‘Hey we’re gonna go feed some orcas today.’ I’m like, 'Oh, sweet, let’s go!'” Owings said.

Though the effort Monday ended up being a test, it was an important one.

Biologists say J50 shows signs of a life-threatening infection and of starvation. They hope to deliver salmon and give the orca antibiotics.

There are only 75 whales left in the Southern resident orcas, as their group is called, so each individual is important — especially a four-year-old female like J50 that might bear offspring.

One mother in J50's pod became a focus of worldwide attention last month. She gave birth, but her calf soon died, and she then spent at least 10 days carrying her dead calf.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee's orca recovery task force is meeting in Wenatchee to develop a long-term recovery plan. The group includes tribal members, politicians, farmers and environmentalists. Their report is due by November 1st.

For now the focus is on J50. Big questions remain: Can enough salmon be collected? Can the researchers even find the J-pod in U.S. waters? Will J50 eat the salmon even if the team is able to get the fish to it?

On Tuesday, boat crews were back on the water look for the pod. But it may be in Canadian waters, off limits to this mission. And a NOAA veterinarian said it's possible that J50 has already died. 

Owings said all the effort to help is worth it.

“I love, love orcas. I’ve seen them all my life,” he said. “I brought my son out this summer. He got to see them. It would be pretty devastating if we didn’t get to see them, if my grandkids didn’t get to see them, you know, because they’re incredible beings.”