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Updates on Southern Resident Killer Whales J50 and J35

by NOAA Fisheries 16 Aug 2018 03:04 PDT
Southern Resident Killer Whales © NOAA Fisheries

Biologists are mobilized and responding to an emaciated and ailing three year-old killer whale (born December 2014), J50 also known as Scarlet, of the critically endangered Southern Resident population.

J50 appears lethargic at times with periods of activity, including feeding. Scientists observing her agree that she is in poor condition and may not survive. Responders from NOAA Fisheries and partner organizations are exploring options ranging from no intervention to providing medical treatment, potentially delivered in a live Chinook salmon, which has never before been attempted in the wild. Potential treatment may include medication and nutrition.

J35, an adult female also known as Tahlequah, who carried her dead calf for over two weeks, is also being monitored.

J50 / Scarlet Updates

August 14: Now that the response team has met its initial goals for J50 / Scarlet's health assessment and treatment, and J Pod has headed out to open waters, biologists and veterinarians are taking stock of what they have learned so far. They are reviewing video footage and photos and processing samples to gain further insights into her health and behavior. Teams continue to monitor the whales and collect fecal and prey samples (e.g., fish scales) when possible. They will also review the results of Sunday's (8/12) feeding trial while they determine next steps.

August 13: Press Call transcript

Audio File: NMFS 08/13/2018 Press Call MP3 (7958 kb)

August 12: Favorable conditions allowed the teams to proceed with an experimental live fish release off the west side of San Juan Island to evaluate the process as a way to treat J50 / Scarlet with medication and supplements. Under the direction of Jeff Foster with the Whale Sanctuary Program, a Lummi Nation vessel released eight live hatchery salmon about 75 to 150 yards in front of her, while teams observed from NOAA Fisheries and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) vessels. While she appeared to react to the released fish by quickly diving, biologists could not confirm from the vessels whether she took the fish, and they are reviewing aerial footage for further clues. J50 / Scarlet socialized with members of J Pod but sometimes fell behind in the strong current. Researchers collected a fecal sample from the pod but could not confirm whether it was from J50 herself. Fecal samples can reveal whether the whales are eating, what they are eating, provide clues about their health, and gauge their stress levels by evaluating hormones such as cortisol.

August 11: The team spent several hours with J50 / Scarlet watching her behavior and interaction with members of J pod. Researchers from the Univ. of WA observed her swimming with the pod while trying to collect a fecal sample. Later the team watched her fall as much as 1 kilometer (~1/2 mile) behind against a strong tidal current. Biologists were concerned that they did not see her eat, even in a prime foraging area off San Juan Island. A charter company reported seeing her catch a fish earlier in the day.

August 10: J pod moved into Canadian waters. The team spotted J50 / Scarlet and watched as she repeatedly dove and surfaced where the pod was feeding. Biologists could not tell whether she also fed, but they collected leftover scale samples that will help identify what kind of salmon or other fish the whales had eaten. She again appeared active and energetic.

August 9: Response teams reached J Pod in Canadian waters and followed them into U.S. waters near San Juan Island. While very skinny and small, J50 / Scarlet kept up well with her mother and siblings. Vancouver Aquarium's veterinarian and the team conducted a visual assessment, obtained a breath sample that will help assess any infection, and administered antibiotics through a dart. Next steps are to continue observations and consider trial feeding as a future route for delivering medications.

August 8: DFO spotted Jpod in U.S. waters off the Olympic Peninsula northwest of Neah Bay, Wash. J50/Scarlet was with her mother, J16, known as Slick. Teams are prepared to attempt a response tomorrow, if there is opportunity.

August 7: J50 was spotted by Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans Canada with her pod off Port Renfew, near the west entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Throughout the day, as some teams searched for J50, other partners in the effort continued making important preparations to be ready for an opportunity to assess J50's health.

Audio file: NMFS 08/07/18 Press Call MP3 (8.26 MB)

August 6: Responders continued searching for J pod today without success. The whales have not been seen since Saturday night, when spotted in open waters on the west side of Vancouver Island. Veterinarians are on standby to conduct a health assessment of J50.

Audio file: NMFS 08/06/18 Press Call MP3 (6.44 MB)

August 4: J50 was seen with her pod (J pod) around the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond the reach of most response vessels. We are awaiting an opportunity to complete a veterinary medical assessment.

August 3: Analysis of a small sample of her breath did not definitively indicate an infection or illness, although it does not rule one out either. SR3, a response partner, posted photos of J50 taken in May 2017 and August 2018 for comparison.

August 2: Experts agreed to focus efforts over the next few days on obtaining better photographs of J50 and conducting a veterinary health assessment to inform options for a decision on whether and how they might be able to respond. More: Biologists assess condition of Southern Resident killer whale J50.

J35 / Tahlequah Updates

August 11: The Center for Whale Research confirmed J35/Tahlequah is no longer carrying the calf and appears to be in good condition.

August 10: The team sighted J35 / Tahlequah with J pod in Canadian waters, but could not confirm if she was still carrying her calf due to poor visibility.

August 8: Teams spotted J35/Tahlequah today and the heartbreaking sight of her still carrying her dead calf. It has been almost two weeks since she gave birth.

Week of July 27: Biologists last observed J35 the week of July 27. They are concerned about her health.

July 24: J35 gave birth to a female calf. The calf died about a half hour after birth. J35 has been seen carrying her dead calf since then. She is part of the J pod.

How You Can Help

Keep Distance

Boaters are asked to keep clear of the whales to minimize stress on J50 and J35 at this critical time, and to keep the area clear for response teams to observe J50 and swiftly take action to conduct veterinary assessments on J50 when able.

Vessel noise and disturbance can disrupt the whales’ communication and feeding, as well as increase the energy they expend, so extra efforts to minimize noise and interactions can be beneficial at this time. Vessels are required at all times to stay at least 200 yards from killer whales and stay out of their paths per federal regulations. Visit for details.The Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) also developed additional guidelines for the whale watch industry to support conservation.

Recover Prey — Chinook Salmon and Restore Salmon Habitat

Many Chinook salmon runs that the Southern Residents eat are also listed under the Endangered Species Act, and efforts to recover these salmon will also benefit the whales. In July, NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife developed a list of Chinook salmon stocks that are important to the whales’ recovery to help inform Chinook salmon recovery and habitat restoration efforts.

Some things you can do to help protect and restore salmon habitat include conserving water and electricity; reducing pesticide and fertilizer use and preventing their runoff into waterways; and volunteering with your local stream or watershed group to plant native species, clean up litter, and remove invasive species.

Reduce Pollution

Reducing pollution in the West Coast rivers and coastal waters is also needed to help the whales and the salmon they eat. The main contaminants of concern are PCBs (e.g., found in plastics, paints, rubber, electrical equipment), DDT (found in pesticides), PBDEs (fire retardant chemicals found, for example, in mattresses, TVs, toasters). During times of nutritional stress, the effects of the high levels of contaminants in this top predator can compromise their health by impairing immune function and interfering with reproduction.

There are many little things we can all do at home, school, and work to improve the environment and waters on which killer whales, salmon, and other marine species depend.

Partners in Response

NOAA Fisheries administers the permit to conduct this response under a Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act Scientific Research and Enhancement Permit issued through the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. We convene a network of organizations along the West Coast we have authorized to respond when whales are in distress or entangled — the West Coast Marine Mammals Stranding Network.

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