Pos­si­ble death cuts orca pop­u­la­tion to 74

Young sickly whale has not been seen since Sept. 7

Tulsa World - - Datelines - By Allyson Chiu The Wash­ing­ton Post birth, she had to

Ever since 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 for launch­ing her body out of the wa­ter, had 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.

The news of J50's bleak di­ag­no­sis came just as the pop­u­la­tion was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing another tragedy — the sud­den death of a fe­male new­born who only lived for a half-hour. The griev­ing mother, an orca called Tahle­quah, made 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 fe­male, bi­ol­o­gists and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials be­gan work­ing to de­vise ways to nurse J50 back to health, or risk los­ing another po­ten­tial mother. At­tempts in­cluded shoot­ing an­tibi­otic darts at her and try­ing to get her to eat med­i­cated chi­nook salmon, the or­cas' main food, 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 look­out.

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.”

BRIAN GIS­BORNE/Fish­eries and Oceans Canada via AP file

South­ern Res­i­dent Killer Whale J50 and her mother, J16, swim off the west coast of Van­cou­ver Is­land near Port Ren­frew, Bri­tish Columbia, on Aug. 7. Teams searched Thurs­day for the sick, crit­i­cally en­dan­gered orca, but a sci­en­tist who closely tracks the pop­u­la­tion said he be­lieves the whale, known as J50, has died.

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