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US Suspends Efforts To Free Tangled Whales After Death of Lobsterman from Canada

A video still showing Joe Howlett in August of 2016 as he rescued an endangered right whale caught up in a mass of fishing gear.
A video still showing Joe Howlett in August of 2016 as he rescued an endangered right whale caught up in a mass of fishing gear.

Members of the marine mammal rescue and research community are mourning the loss of a Canadian fisherman who died this week after freeing an entangled right whale off the coast of New Brunswick. Joe Howlett of Campobello Island, founded a Canadian whale rescue team and was considered an expert in whale rescue. Now officials at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are suspending whale disentanglements until it can complete a review its own emergency response protocols.

The men and women who dedicate themselves to marine mammal rescue and research are a close-knit family who have been known to risk their lives to save stranded or ensnared sea animals. But on Monday, Joe Howlett became the first person ever to be killed doing the work. His colleagues reported that he was struck by the animal as it sped away.

“It’s a tragedy of unspeakable dimensions,” says Charles “Stormy” Mayo. He is a senior scientist with the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts who had come to know Howlett as a seasoned disentanglement specialist.

And Mayo said it was Howlett’s lengthy experience with past whale disentanglements that made the Howlett’s death all that much more difficult to accept.

“I know his reputation which is really that of an extraordinary individual who not only was exceptional at sea but also was dedicated in a way that not many people are to trying to free animals in an environment that he as a fisherman knew very well,” Mayo says.

Equally troubling for those who rescue entangled whales is an announcement by NOAA, that the regulatory agency will be suspending efforts to free whales tangled in fishing line until further notice. Kate Brogan is the NOAA’s public affairs officer who spoke to Maine Public Radio on behalf of Chris Oliver, the assistant administrator of the agency’s fisheries department.

“Because ensuring the safety of responders is of paramount importance, NOAA fisheries is suspending all large whale entanglement response activities nationally until further notice in order to review our own emergency response protocols in light of this event,” Brogan says.

“To hear that NOAA has suspended all entanglements, I think it has just given us all pause to sort of try and understand what happened and how we work better and to try and keep it as safe as possible,” says Rosemary Seton of Allied Whale, a marine mammal laboratory at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

Seton is the stranding coordinator for the northeast region of Maine and a Research Associate with the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue. She says most people have no idea of the power an ensnared and frightened right whale.

“Even if the animal doesn’t even touch you, just the force of it pushing away with its flukes can push you aside,” she says. “It’s immensely powerful and I think people underestimate that.”

Seton said those in the marine mammal community are waiting to see how NOAA’s new disentanglement policy plays out in practice. The agency’s spokeswoman said NOAA will continue to respond to other stranded animals. Seton says she hopes the fishing regulators will consider whale rescues on a case-by-case basis and that the suspension period will be temporary. There are believed to be just 500 Right Whales remaining in the world.

Video of Joe Howlett successfully disentangling a right whale from fishing gear in 2016:


This story was originally published July 13, 2017 at 4:38 p.m.