Researcher who tracks whales declares orca dead

The grim news means scientists believe just 74 whales remain in a group that has failed to reproduce successfully in the past three years.

Researchers blame the decline on multiple factors including pollution, boat noise and a shortage of Chinook salmon, the orcas' preferred food.

"We're watching a population marching toward extinction", said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. "If we are unable to restore the salmon that these orcas need, more whales will starve to death".

Experts had been preparing last-ditch efforts to save the almost 4-year-old, emaciated whale that included the possibility of capturing and treating her.

"Other southern residents, from K and L pods, as well as J pod whales, are probably still in the area, so it will be a long day of searching by all", Balcomb wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.

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The southern resident killer whale J50, also known as Scarlet, hasn't been seen for several days and has been now presumed dead. The joint Canada-U.S. rescue team has twice used a dart to inject the whale with antibiotics, but her condition appeared to be worsening before she disappeared. Balcomb, who tracks the whales for the US government, declared her dead late Thursday afternoon. They said the controversial step would only be taken as a last resort to treat the whale and release her back to the wild.

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"We want to make the most of it to make sure that if J50 is there, we haven't missed her", Milstein said.

"We are increasing water surveillance in hopes of finding her", he said on Twitter. The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network has been alerted. "What J50 needed, and what her family continues to need, is healthy and abundant chinook salmon, which these orcas depend upon for survival".

Canada's Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, however, said J50 was seen the afternoon of September 9 off the San Juan Islands.

The southern resident killer whales, which are so endangered there are just 75 individuals left, swim between Canadian and US waters to Seattle and Vancouver ports through busy shipping lanes.

The orcas' numbers are now at their lowest in more than three decades.

The sick orca has received global attention.

The message, the Center for Whale Research said in a website post, is that extinction is looming "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".

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