Public calls for NOAA to take action to save Southern resident orcas

A missing adolescent orca has likely lost her fight against illness and emaciation.

On Sept. 13, Center for Whale Research staff announced that Southern resident killer whale J50 is presumably deceased, though a body has not been found.

After actively searching for the whale for almost a week, National Oceanic Atmospheric Association stated on Sept. 15 that it would stop looking, as the orca has likely died.

The endangered species population now totals 74 whales, the lowest number in almost 30 years.

Emotions filled the air in the packed Friday Harbor High School cafeteria on Sept. 17 during NOAA’s public meeting regarding the state of the Southern resident orcas that frequent the San Juan Islands.

“We’ve let these killer whales down, and we need to step up,” said Barry Thom, from NOAA.

The meeting was originally organized to take public feedback regarding NOAA’s proposal to capture J50, also known as Scarlett, the sick young whale from J pod the association had been attempting to treat over the summer. In early September, after treatment in the wild failed and J50’s health continued to decline without a specific cause that NOAA could detect, the association concluded drastic measures needed to be taken.

“She has lost enough body fat now that it has impacted her hydrodynamic capability. It is difficult for her to move through the water,” said Joe Gaydos in a media conference call Tuesday, Sept. 12.

Gaydos, a veterinarian and science director of the Sea Doc Society, was one of the last people to see J50 alive.

The plan was – should J50 be found lagging behind her pod far enough that there was little chance of her reuniting with them or should she become stranded – NOAA would capture her and move her to a facility in Port Orchard, Washington that has both a net pen and a pool. A full health assessment, including an ultrasound and a hearing and blood test, would be conducted to see what kind of treatment, if any, could be done. According to Lynne Barre, NOAA Southern resident orca recovery coordinator, J50 would have been released back into the wild as soon as possible.

“Permanent captivity was never our plan,” said Barre.

Despite her statement and assurances, many commenters accused NOAA of working with Sea World, especially after an article in the Seattle Times said the governmental organization had received funds from the company. These comments led Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, to call for more transparency from NOAA.

He also brought up other issues that could help salmon recovery, such as breaching dams, while admitting NOAA does not have jurisdiction over that particular action.

“It still needs to be discussed and put on record,” he said, continuing to discuss the three major threats to the orcas, including lack of food, vessel noise, and pollution.

Nearly all commenters advocated taking down the dams, with many pushing for at minimum tighter restrictions on Chinook fishing, if not an all-out moratorium.

“I saw 100 plus boats out on the water fishing for wild Chinook for 34 days. Many of the boats were private recreational fishing,” said San Juan resident Debbie Fincher. “Why would we allow that? This is an action we can take today.”

Port Commissioner Greg Hertel discussed a letter the Port of Friday Harbor wrote to the Pacific Fisheries Management requesting to list the Southern residents as a “user group,” thereby setting aside a fixed number of salmon for them rather than including them in a small and fluctuating category of “ocean loss.”

Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, expressed disappointment that NOAA has taken so long to act on salmon recovery.

The Center for Whale Research has counted the Southern resident killer whale 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, orca J35 gave birth but the calf died soon after. Her offspring was not added to the population counts because of its short life duration. Afterward, J35 carried her dead calf on her forehead for an unprecedented 17 days, and about 1,000 miles. Last June, the 23-year-old L92 was also presumed dead after being missing.

A young woman named London Fletcher asked where was NOAA when Southern residents like Polaris, a young mother orca, died two years ago.

“There are things we can do,” she said. “Like take down the dams.”

To watch the video of this meeting, as well as the one they held in Seattle on Sunday, Sept. 16, visit