Contributed photo/Center for Whale Research photo by Dave Ellifrit
                                J50 being tossed by J42 in 2015.

Contributed photo/Center for Whale Research photo by Dave Ellifrit J50 being tossed by J42 in 2015.

Sick, young orca, J50, is presumed dead, while others continue search | Update

As of Sept. 13, some researchers presume that a missing adolescent orca lost her struggle to recover from illness and emaciation amongst her dwindling endangered orca population. Others haven’t given up the fight.

Staff from the Center for Whale Research conclude that the missing J50 is likely deceased, as National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries continue to look for the young orca.

The 3-year-old Southern resident killer whale has not been seen since Sept. 7. Staff from the Center for Whale Research and NOAA Fisheries recently spotted her pod and family, including her mother J16, without J50.

The endangered species population, according to the Center for Whale Research, now totals 74 whales, the lowest number in almost 30 years.

NOAA staff is searching for J50 in both U.S. and Canadian waters. The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the U.S. Coast Guard, and local airlines were also notified to help. Coast guard staff report that if J50 is found, they will establish a temporary safety perimeter around her while NOAA personnel respond.

Coast Guard staff report that searchers should look in Rosario Strait and the south end of Georgia Strait to Canada. J50 is 13-feet long and weighs about 550 kilograms.

“J50 may be alive and separated from her pod or lagging significantly behind,” read a statement from the coast guard.

For NOAA’s updates on J50, visit bit.ly/NOAAJ50J35 and report strandings at 1-866-767-6114.

Center for Whale Research Founder Ken Balcomb has consistently called to increase runs for the endangered Chinook salmon, the primary food for Southern resident orcas. To Balcomb, J50’s presumed death was a result in inaction.

“… 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,” he said.

Last March, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee used an executive order to create a task force to protect both Chinook salmon and Southern resident killer whales. County residents, including Balcomb, San Juan County Councilman Jamie Stephens and Washington state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, are part of the governor’s 46-member task force. The group has planned to give final recommendations on how to protect the endangered orcas to the governor by November.

Rescue efforts for J50 have been underway since August by NOAA Fisheries and Oceans Canada with assistance from the Lummi Nation. J50 has been described as severely emaciated with a possible infection near her blowhole.

Rescue teams administered an antibiotic to J50 through a dart, as well as released live Chinook in front of her pod. A dart of medicine hit J50 on Aug. 9, but it partially bounced, meaning only half of the dose went into her system. On Aug. 12 live Chinook, without medicine, were released about 50-100 meters ahead of J pod, to test if antibiotics could be delivered that way. However, none of the orcas were seen eating the salmon.

To Balcomb, more Chinook is the only answer to increase the population.

“This is what extinction looks like when survival is threatened for all by food deprivation,” said Balcomb. “The Southern resident killer whales scarce presence in the Salish Sea is another indication that sufficient food is not available for them here, or along the coast. Natural salmon runs must be restored.”

The Center for Whale Research has counted the population since 1976 when it was at its lowest at 71. The population reached today’s count at 74 around 1985 but peaked at 98 in 1995.

In July, the orca, J35, gave birth, but the calf died soon after. The calf was not added to the population counts because of the short life duration. Afterward, the mourning mother was seen carrying her dead offspring on her forehead for an unprecedented 17 days, and about 1,000 miles. Last June, the 23-year-old L92 was found to be missing and presumed dead.

“The message brought by J50, and by J35 and her dead calf a few weeks ago, is that the [species is] running out of reproductive capacity and extinction of this population is looming,” said Balcomb.

For more about the orcas, visit the Center for Whale Research’s website at www.whaleresearch.com.

Reporter Heather Spaulding contributed to this article.