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J50 and family
The orca known as J50 was seen with her family on Sept. 3, but is no longer part of the group. (Center for Whale Research Photo / Dave Ellifrit)

The emaciated and ailing killer whale known as J50 or Scarlet has disappeared from her family group, and experts presume that she’s dead. Nevertheless, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its partners are continuing the effort to find her, dead or alive.

“We have alerted the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which is a tremendous resource in such situations,” NOAA said in Thursday’s update. “Airlines flying in and out of the San Juan Islands are also on the lookout.”

NOAA said the hotline for stranding reports is 1-866-767-6114.

The last confirmed sighting of J50 was reported on Sept. 7 by NOAA, the SeaDoc Society and other observers. J50’s presumed loss comes after weeks of efforts to get her medicine and extra food. Experts were never able to diagnose exactly what was ailing the whale.

The 3-year-old orca’s plight captured worldwide attention over the past couple of months. So did the case of J35, also called Tahlequah, another orca from the same pod who was seen carrying her dead calf for 17 days this summer.

A third orca from a different pod, a 23-year-old male known as L92, died earlier this summer. The deaths brought the tally for the endangered Southern Resident orca population — which is found mostly off the coast of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon — down to 74 killer whales. That’s the lowest count since 1984.

In a news release, Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., said “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.”

Recent studies have linked a decline in the Southern Residents’ birth rate to a chronic lack of Chinook salmon. And ironically, the decline in Chinook salmon has been linked to increased predation by a different, more northerly orca population that frequents the waters off Alaska.

“The message brought by J50, and by J35 and her dead calf a few weeks ago, is that the SRKW [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,” Balcomb said.

Balcomb called on policymakers to take dramatic steps to restore habitat along the coastline frequented by the southern killer whales, including restoring Chinook salmon runs, breaching the Lower Snake River Dams for the sake of the salmon, and tightening up environmental regulations governing industrial development and pollution on the Fraser River in Canada.

Robb Krehbiel, Northwest representative for the Seattle-based Defenders of Wildlife, said he was “devastated by the loss of J50” and issued a similar call to action.

“NOAA and Washington state were willing to mount an aggressive plan to save this one whale, and we need this type of leadership to save the entire population,” Krehbiel said in a news release. “Preventing the extinction of these unique whales will require bold leadership and tough choices. ”

Krehbiel said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee should take immediate action.

“He can start by counteracting salmon-killing dams, restoring rivers and habitat, reducing toxic stormwater runoff and decreasing noise disturbance from vessels and ships,” Krehbiel said. “Much needs to be done, and there is no time to waste to save these whales.”

In March, Inslee called on state agencies to take action to benefit the Southern Resident orca population and set up a task force to develop longer-term recommendations for the population’s recovery. The group’s membership includes state, local and tribal officials, plus business leaders and conservationists such as Balcomb.

The task force’s recommendations are due in November.

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