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NOAA halts large whale rescues after death of Canadian rescuer

Joe Howlett, who also worked as a lobster fisherman, was the co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team. He died after rescuing a right whale entangled in fishing gear from a Department of Fisheries vessel near Shippagan, N.B. The whale hit Mr. Howlett as it burst free and swam away. Mr. Howlett has assisted in the rescue of about two dozen whales in the last 15 years.

Canadian Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc confirmed on Tuesday that Howlett was working with federal conservation officers and the Canadian Coast Guard at the time of the rescue.

In an interview with CBC Mainstreet in 2013, he said that rescuing whales is “not a scary situation.” At the time, he said, “I’m a fisherman and I’ve been fishing for half of my life, and I know what it’s all about with ropes and things like that.”

CTV News Canada is reporting that Chris Oliver, assistant administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, extended condolences Wednesday to the family of Mr. Howlett. In a statement, Oliver said: “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.”

North Atlantic right whale off Grand Manan Island  Canada.
North Atlantic right whale off Grand Manan Island, Canada.
World Wildlife Fund


Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in the meantime, issued a statement on Wednesday evening highlighting their renewed efforts to save the endangered right whales. The commercial fishing industry has been asked to report any whale sightings in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The DFO is also asking mariners to slow down along the Laurentian Channel shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands and the Gaspe peninsula until Sept. 30, 2017. The DFO is working with mammal experts, scientists and fisheries officials across Atlantic Canada to investigate the deaths of at least five endangered right whales off Canada’s eastern coast recently.

“The government of Canada takes the protection, conservation, and recovery of endangered species very seriously,” the statement said. “We will continue to work with our partners as this issue evolves.”

CapeCod.com published a statement from the Center for Coastal Studies that read: ““We were deeply shocked to hear the news, To the end, Joe was utterly dedicated to conservation and had helped many individual whales in the course of his career. His death highlights the critical situation whales currently face and the risks associated with this work.”

It should be noted that the Center also said that “Howlett’s death is the only human fatality in the history of the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network.” This is a testament to how well-trained whale rescuers are along the Canadian and U.S. coasts.

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