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A young orca’s presumed death further cuts endangered Northwest population

FILE - This September 2015 photo provided by NOAA Fisheries shows a aerial view of adult female Southern Resident killer whale (J16) swims with her calf (J50). Federal officials are weighing options to save an emaciated endangered orca that includes feeding it live salmon dosed with medicine. Biologists are worried about the survival of a 4-year-old orca known as J-50, a member of a dwindling population of whales that spend time in Pacific Northwest waters (NOAA Fisheries/Vancouver Aquarium via AP, File)

SEATTLE - The orca J50 was presumed dead Thursday after a search for the whale by boat, plane and from shore failed to spot her.

About 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, declared J50 presumed dead. He is on contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the keeper of demographic data of the southern resident population of orca whales.

But NOAA and partners helping in the search have not given up hope, said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the agency.

"We have had a huge amount of help today, and it is really important that if she is there that we find her," Milstein said. "We certainly have not determined at this point that we are giving up. And we are determining that day by day, we are not setting a timeline."

A massive search was mobilized for J50 all day Thursday on both sides of the border. The search in Washington waters included a Coast Guard helicopter, several NOAA researchers in separate boats, Soundwatch, the boater education nonprofit, and multiple whale-watch vessels, as well as members of the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network. In Canada, the Marine Mammal Rescue vessel, the M Charles midwater patrol vessel, Straitwatch, a nonprofit, a Coast Guard helicopter, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans enforcement airplane and a floatplane all were deployed.

“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,” Balcomb wrote in a news release, “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.”

Last seen Sept. 7, the 3-year-old whale was not with her family on several sightings in local waters around the San Juan Islands, including a superpod gathering Thursday in which some 60 whales from J, K, and L pod were together near Race Rocks. However, J50 was not among them.

In this Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, Southern Resident killer whale J50 and her mother, J16, swim off the west coast of Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew, B.C. J50 is the sick whale that a team of experts are hoping to save by giving her antibiotics or feeding her live salmon at sea. The experts now have authorization to intervene with medical treatment in both U.S. and Canadian waters once the critically endangered orca shows up again in the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest. (Brian Gisborne/Fisheries and Oceans Canada via AP)

Balcomb said he and others with the center had looked hard for the whale on multiple days this week with no results, and doesn’t expect further efforts to turn up a live J50 to be successful. “They can look all they want. They can look til Christmas,” he said.

J50 would be the second death in the critically endangered family of southern resident orca whales in less than two months. Tahlequah, or J35, brought worldwide sympathy as she swam more than 1,000 miles for 17 days through the trans-boundary waters of the Salish Sea, clinging to her dead calf, which lived for only a half-hour. The southern residents have not had a successful pregnancy in three years.

NOAA has plans underway for a rescue of J50, which include taking her into temporary captivity for rehabilitation.

J50 had a tough life from the start. Always small for her age, she got the name Scarlet from deep rake marks near her dorsal fin, a sign, researchers believe, that she was pulled out of her mother by other whales in a midwifed birth because she was in a breech position.

She was known for her spectacular breaches, as many as 40 in a row, sometimes with her body in an arch.

But while always small for her age, J50 became the object of scientists' concern as over the course of 2017 and this year she lost more and more weight. She became so emaciated it became increasingly hard for her to swim and hold her head up, as the fat pad in her cranium shrank, reducing her buoyancy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mounted a progressively more intense effort involving veterinarians and biologists from Canada and the U.S. to save her.

First, they sampled her breath, then darted her with antibiotics, then launched a practice feeding effort, sluicing live chinook to her from the back of a boat, with the hope of giving her medicated fish if she would eat fish put right in front of her. She did not.

Finally this week, the agency announced a plan to capture the whale and take her into temporary captivity for assessment and, if possible, rehabilitation since all efforts to treat her in the wild had failed. The agency said it would act immediately if the whale stranded -- turned up on a beach, or was unable to swim. Debate swirled over whether the agency should act, or why it hadn't acted sooner, and the ethics of such extreme intervention.

J50 was the first of the "baby boom" among the southern residents that caused so much celebration in late 2014. Of the 11 babies born between December 2014 and January 2016, only four now are known to still be alive.

Biologist Deborah Giles, research scientist for the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca, used to often see J50 babysat by her brother, the largest of J pod, with her the smallest. "They were really sweet together," Giles said.

She was a spunky whale with an independent streak, Giles said, spending time off on her own while her family foraged. She also glided along in the slipstream of her mother, J16. "You could see she just wanted to be lifted up all the time; these whales are very playful, they will lift up their calves and toss them, and the calves will swim over their backs."

Known for a belly flop achieved by launching her body out of the water, "she just had a really sweet personality," Giles said.

Public meetings held by NOAA to hear concerns and thoughts from the public about southern resident killer whale recovery are still on schedule for this weekend, including one at 7 p.m. Saturday in Friday Harbor at the high school and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Haggett Hall Cascade Room at the University of Washington in Seattle .

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