Last Thursday, September 13th, we all went to sleep on the heart-breaking news that little “Scarlet” (also identified as “J50”) is missing, presumed dead. She had been in the news recently because of her severely emaciated condition, which incited a fear of what has now tragically come to pass.

Although Scarlet is gone, she remains a symbol of the very existence of her entire population. She belonged to the Southern resident orcas inhabiting the Pacific Northwest. These fish-eaters can be found off the coast of San Juan Island, USA during the summer months, though their presence is noticeably diminishing along with their primary food source, the Chinook salmon.

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At nearly four years old, Scarlet couldn’t get enough to eat (or drink; orcas hydrate from their food) because we have interfered with and destroyed the habitat of her prey. Man-made dams are a barrier to the salmons’ natural migratory routes, while overfishing, disease from salmon farms, and pollution are also decimating the wild stock.

J50 near San Juan Island, Wash., on Sept. 7, 2018. Photo by Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786-03.

 

As Scarlet starved, her fat cells broke down for energy, flooding her body with persistent chemical toxins that have bio-accumulated in her blubber because we have polluted her food chain, the seas, and oceans. Her immune system was compromised as a result and she is now lost from a small, already depleted community.

Struggling Orca Populations

The Southern residents now comprise just 74 individuals because of these conservation threats and because their group was ravaged by people almost five decades ago. In the 1970s, at least 12 Southern resident orcas were stolen by the captive entertainment industry or killed in a round-up of 80 individuals in Penn Cove, Washington State. The population has failed to recover.

This crash course in the conservation and welfare threats facing the Southern resident (and other) orcas, their habitat, and prey, makes two things abundantly clear: 1) Most of these problems are caused by humans, and therefore 2) As humans, we need to change our behavior. We must clean up our act – and our oceans.

This has been clearly evidenced by Scarlet, who was severely malnourished, possibly sick with other ailments and was lagging behind the rest of her family in J pod, (the Southern residents are comprised of three pods: J, K, and L). Not only did Scarlet’s personal welfare suffer, but her community will now experience the emotional and conservation consequences of losing another calf.

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Aerial photograph of adult female Southern Resident killer whale J16 with her calf (J50) in 2015, when the calf was in its first year of life. Photo credit: John Durban (NOAA Fisheries), Holly Fearnbach (SR3) and Lance Barrett-Lennard (Vancouver Aquarium), taken by an unmanned hexacopter during research authorized under NMFS permit #16163.

 

As such, efforts were being made by organizations, including governmental, to help this orca get better. Experts in the field were keeping fresh eyes on her and had administered a course of antibiotics. Attempts had also been made to administer de-worming medication, which previously helped another resident orca when she was in a similar situation.

In 2002, Northern resident orca “Springer” was found alone and emaciated. She was temporarily taken into captivity, rehabilitated, and successfully released back into the wild. Years later, she has now produced two of her own offspring.

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Like Springer, Norwegian orca “Morgan” was also found alone and in the same condition, but off the coast of the Netherlands. She was taken into captivity by the Dutch, and despite the fact she was a strong candidate for release, she remains in captivity to this day. There had also been talk about taking Scarlet into short-term captivity, to rehabilitate her and repatriate her to family, once she was recovered. This was outlined by the Whale Sanctuary Project, which had experts on the ground as part of the effort to help Scarlet. This rescue attempt would have been in sharp contrast to the fate of Morgan, whose welfare is now compromised, along with the welfare of her offspring (despite being still too young herself, the industry allowed for an older male to impregnate her).

Scarlet, the breaching orca baby whose personality was full of beans until she became ill, symbolizes how we, ourselves, are going to drown if we don’t pay heed to what is going on with our environment.

J50 and other members of J Pod. (Photo by Candace Emmons/NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786)

 

“The concept of ecosystems was first described only about a half-century ago, and it’s only begun to guide our understanding of the problems our modern society has caused,” said Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network, which raises awareness about the Pacific Northwest orcas. ”Scarlet’s heart-wrenching demise, and the accelerating decline of her entire clan of J, K, and L pods,” he stated, “are stark signs of massive compounded ecosystem loss. It’s our responsibility to see the harm we’ve done and correct our ways, and soon.”

The effort to help Scarlet was commendable, however, it’s no good saving one orca if we are going to continue destroying the planet around her. It’s too late for Scarlet now, as it is for the UK’s soon-to-be-extinct West Coast Community orca population, which only has eight individuals left. But it’s not too late for the other Southern residents, other orcas, species or their habitats. For hope, we only have to look at this photo of Southern resident orca L119 who, as a calf in 2012, would lead her pod through the Salish Sea. Our youth will one day be leading our planet, and we need to show them, today, how to do it.

L119 as a calf in 2012 leading a member of her family, Southern resident L pod. Copyright: orcaaware.org

 

Take Action

We need to stop ignoring the problem now. It’s even time we stop talking about it. We — and especially those in positions of influence and power — need to take responsibility and make changes. Our world, our climate, is already fighting for equilibrium, and we need to actively help instead of hinder.

Your voice and action is key to that change:

  • Politely petition members of government to influence change by focusing efforts on the environment rather than money — send them letters of concern and attend peaceful protests about conservation issues.
  • For the Southern residents specifically, ask political leaders to breach the dams and shut down salmon farms.
  • Use less plastic and recycle what you do use — Plastic-Free Me is a great resource to help you start.
  • Turn off lights and do not litter — these are still huge problems for such simple, easy actions!
  • And encourage friends, family, and strangers to do the same. Educating and inspiring even just one person a week will turn a ripple of change into a tsunami.

Scarlet, who was first sighted at only a few days old on December 30th in 2014, was a tiny orca who lived a despairingly short life, but one that will hopefully evoke a giant change. Let’s not forget her or let her little life go to waste.

Lead Image Source: NOAA Fisheries/Flickr