Science

'What extinction looks like': A young orca's presumed death cuts endangered whale population to 74

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Southern Resident killer whale J50 and her mother, J16, swim off the west coast of Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew, B.C. on Aug. 7, 2018 (Brian Gisborne/Fisheries and Oceans Canada via AP)
September 14 at 6:57 AM

Ever since birth, she had to fight to live.

The deep scratches along her back and dorsal fin not only earned her the nickname “Scarlet,” but may also indicate that the young female orca, J50, came into the world through harrowing means: Pulled out of her mother by other whales using their mouths.

Still, she survived, and for a while restored hope that she could help her pod — part of an embattled population of southern resident killer whales known to frequent the waters near Washington state — to rebuild their numbers.

But Thursday, researchers announced grim news.

“J50 is missing and now presumed dead,” according to a news release from the Center for Whale Research, a group based out of San Juan Island that has studied the southern resident killer whales for more than 40 years. The last known sighting of the 3-year-old orca was on Sept. 7, researchers said.

Without J50, the population is now down to 74 members — their numbers reached nearly 100 in 1995 — and many of its existing female members are nearing the age where they will no longer be able to reproduce, Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator of the Center for Whale Research, told The Washington Post in July. The pod has not produced viable offspring in three years.

“This is a sign from the whales that all is not going well out there for recovery of the southern residents,” Balcomb told the Seattle Times on Thursday.

The young orca, once known for her propensity to breach by launching her body out of the water, has become sickly and emaciated in recent months. According to the Seattle Times, J50, who was always small for her age, had been losing weight since 2017. Photos of the sick orca showed evidence of “peanut head” syndrome, or “when fat reserves are so depleted that the connection between their body and head is visible — and looks like a peanut,” according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.


J50 on July 2018 with noticeable peanut head (Mark Malleson/Center for Whale Research)

The news of J50’s bleak diagnosis came just as the population was experiencing another tragedy — the sudden death of a newborn female who only lived for a half-hour. The grieving mother, an orca called Tahlequah, made international headlines over the summer when she carried her baby’s body for at least 17 days, bringing global attention to the plight of her pod.

Given the death of Tahlequah’s baby, who was also a female capable of reproduction, biologists and government officials began working fervently to devise ways to nurse J50 back to health, or risk losing another potential mother. Attempts ranged from shooting antibiotic darts at her to trying to get her to eat medicated chinook salmon, the orcas’s main food source, the Seattle Times reported.

Nothing seemed to work.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries service reported on Sept. 8 that J50 was seen the day before at times “lagging a half-mile to a mile behind the rest of her family.” She “appeared to have lost more weight and looked very thin,” the service said.

On Wednesday, experts intensified their efforts, announcing a last-ditch attempt to save J50: Capturing her and treating her in temporary captivity until she could be rehabilitated, the Associated Press reported.

“This is a very sick whale,” Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian with the SeaDoc Society involved in the effort to save J50, told the AP. “We don’t think she has long.”

A multiagency search to find J50 was launched Thursday and people spent all day scouring the waters near Washington state and Canada for her.

“Teams were on the water searching yesterday and are increasing a broad transboundary search today with our on-water partners and counterparts in Canada,” NOAA Fisheries said. The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network was also activated, and airlines flying in and out of islands in the area were on the look out.

Other participants in the search included the Coast Guard, NOAA researchers, whale-watching vessels and nonprofits, the Seattle Times reported.

Though J50 has been declared dead, federal officials said the search will continue on Friday, TIME reported.

“We want to make the most of it to make sure that if J50 is there, we haven’t missed her,” Michael Milstein, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries, told TIME. “We haven’t given up hope.”

Milstein told the Seattle Times that those participating in the search “are not setting a timeline” for how long it may go on.

J50’s likely death is just another sign of the perilous situation the southern resident killer whale population is facing. The whales are threatened by toxins, ship traffic and a lack of food, specifically chinook salmon, according to the Center for Whale Research.

“Watching J50 during the past three months is what extinction looks like when survival is threatened for all by food deprivation and lack of reproduction,” the center’s statement said.

The center added: “The message brought by J50, and by J35 and her dead calf a few weeks ago, is that the [southern resident killer whales] are running out of reproductive capacity and extinction of this population is looming, while the humans convene task forces and conference calls that result in nothing, or worse than nothing, diverting attention and resources from solving the underlying ecological problems that will ultimately make this once-productive region unlivable for all.”

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