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Scientists Will Try to Relocate Orca

Wildlife: A team plans to recapture killer whale found near Seattle for a return to pod in Canada.

June 09, 2002|PEGGY ANDERSEN | Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE -- Five months after a young female killer whale was spotted near the Vashon Island ferry dock, the federal government says it will try to capture her this week for eventual relocation to her native waters in Canada.

The young orca will be captured and immobilized--in a net or by securing her tail--and then placed on a barge for a quick trip to a net pen at Manchester on the Kitsap Peninsula, said spokesman Brian Gorman with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The government is hiring a private contractor to head the capture team, probably a local man with experience in the multimillion-dollar effort to reunite Keiko with his birth pod off Greenland, Gorman said. That four-year effort has so far been unsuccessful. Keiko, star of the movie "Free Willy," had previously lived in captivity for 21 years.

The young female--dubbed A-73 for her birth order in her family group, called A-pod--is to stay in the pen 10 to 14 days for treatment of a skin ailment, worms and other apparently minor health problems, Gorman said. She'll also undergo a series of tests and effectively be in quarantine to ensure she doesn't take any serious health problems back to her pod.

She will be fed fish in the pen, some of them dead to allow medication of the 12-foot orphan. "The other advantage of dead fish is that you know what she's eating," Gorman said. "But the idea is to transfer her as quickly as possible to live salmon."

Plans for the move to Canada are still being developed, he said. Once there, she will be kept in an inlet that has been netted off "so she can swim freely and maintain muscle tone and wait for her pod to appear."

Her family group spends summers off Vancouver Island. In Canada, she'll be tended by federal officials from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and veterinary personnel from the Vancouver Aquarium.

U.S. officials have been mulling intervention since A-73 was spotted in mid-January. They weighed the risks of capture against her long-term prospects in busy Puget Sound. For years, killer whales were shot by area fishermen. Then, in the 1960s and '70s, dozens were captured for display in aquariums around the country.

The A-73 project marks the first known attempt to help one of the animals in the wild, and it comes as the local killer whale population is being considered for listing as an endangered species.

The population of the state's three resident pods has dropped from 98 in 1995 to 78 due to declining salmon runs, pollution and vessel noise and traffic.

As Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NMFS, told a media conference May 24 when he announced the decision to proceed: "We don't know what the prospects are, but we think it is worth doing."

Researchers believe A-73 was orphaned last year. She apparently wandered into Puget Sound after she was left behind by her family, which never ventures into these waters. Without the support of her pod, this intelligent social animal is lonely--and missing valuable education about cooperation and survival.

The hope is that she will rejoin A-pod this summer. It is not known whether the pod will accept her after months of separation, but U.S. officials decided her prospects were better in her native waters than here.

U.S. and Canadian researchers--and those at the nonprofit Center for Whale Research in the San Juans--have no prior experience with orphan orcas managing solo.

This year, there are two juveniles trying to survive alone in the region--Canada's A-73 down here and a young male, dubbed L-98 for his birth order in the San Juans' L-pod, who was spotted on the west side of Vancouver Island in November.

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