Today, we mourn.
J-50, a 4-year-old female orca with the imperiled southern resident pod off the coast of Washington state, was presumed dead Thursday after a long health battle that spurred unprecedented governmental intervention. Officials with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) still plan to search for her, but their intensive searches Thursday turned up no sign of J-50. She hasn’t been since seen September 7, according to the Seattle Times.
Nicknamed Scarlet for marks near her dorsal fin, J-50 was the last “successful” birth of the pod, but she started to lose a concerning amount of weight last year. Out of desperation, officials turned to feeding her medicated fish in the wild last month. That effort proved unsuccessful. The NOAA team keeping tabs on J-50 finally planned this week to take her in and rehabilitate her in captivity but alas. The agency’s plan came too late.
J-50’s death follows the death of a newborn calf just a couple months ago. The calf’s mother, J-35, was so distraught following the unsuccessful birth that she carried the calf for 17 days, an unprecedented mourning ritual that grabbed the world’s attention. Now, experts fear the pod is on the brink of extinction. Only 74 southern resident orcas remain.
A lack of chinook salmon, their food of choice, is threatening the majestic creatures. Overfishing is messing with the fish population, along with changes to their ocean habitat that are, in part, linked to climate change. Additional climate change won’t help their food supply in the future, and neither will oil and gas development that can spur marine traffic in the waters they call home. The threat these whales face contributed to a Canadian court’s decision last month to order a new environmental review of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project planned to run from Alberta to British Columbia.
“We are devastated by the loss of J50,” said Northwest Representative of Defenders of Wildlife Robb Krehbiel, in a statement. “It is a heartbreaking reminder that we cannot save these whales on a case-by-case individual basis. What J50 needed, and what her family continues to need, is healthy and abundant chinook salmon, which these orcas depend upon for survival. If we are unable to restore the salmon that these orcas need, more whales will starve to death.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit earlier this month urging the Canadian government to take steps to protect the orcas under its Species at Risk Act. If someone doesn’t do something soon, help may arrive too late.