A disturbing new report out of Canada shows that whales, no matter what their species, can be extremely dangerous.
A veteran whale rescuer was killed by the whale he was trying to rescue from commercial fishing gear on Monday, and now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is halting whale rescuing efforts until further notice. Joe Howlett, who was 59 and from Canada, was trying to cut a North Atlantic Right Whale free after it had gotten tangle in commercial fishing gear off of the coast of Ne Brunswick.
While no official cause of death has been confirmed, it is believed he was hit by the whale shortly after being cut free and it started to swim away. It shows that even though whales are docile creatures that show no aggression to humans normally, they are still huge animals that can do serious damage when one triese to disentanglethem from a net.
Howlett co-founded the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, and he also worked as a lobster fisherman. He was definitely not a rookie in handling and rescuing whales, showing how dangerous the work can be even for professionals.
The following is a statement from Minister Dominic LeBlanc on the death.
It is with sadness that I offer my deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Mr. Joe Howlett. Mr. Howlett was a member of a non-governmental organization, Campobello Whale Rescue, who tragically lost his life yesterday while taking part in a rescue operation to disentangle a North Atlantic Right whale off the coast of New Brunswick.
Taking part in whale rescue operations requires immense bravery and a passion for the welfare of marine mammals. Mr. Howlett’s notable experience and contribution to whale rescue include his very recent and critical role in successfully freeing an entangled whale on July 5.
At the time of the fatal incident, Mr. Howlett was on a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) fast response vessel. DFO’s Conservation and Protection officers and the Canadian Coast Guard took part in responding to the situation.
There are serious risks involved with any disentanglement attempt. Each situation is unique, and entangled whales can be unpredictable.
I am mindful of the other individuals who were on board the vessel at the time this tragic incident occurred. I recognize it is a very difficult thing to lose a friend and colleague. My thoughts are also with them during this time. I would also like to express my gratitude to all those involved in responding to the emergency.
We have lost an irreplaceable member of the whale rescue community. His expertise and dedication will be greatly missed.
Here’s how the Campobello Whale Rescue Team describes itself on its website.
Campobello Whale Rescue Team began after Mackie Greene witnessed a fin whale wrapped in fishing gear while leading a whale watching trip. Since then he and his team have worked with over 20 whales, risking their lives driving a Zodiac up next to animals that can be 40 to 70 or more feet long, and cutting through the lines entangling them.
Bay of Fundy Whales and Fish – The Bay of Fundy is summer home to a large number of whales species. An important feeding ground for North Atlantic right whales, it is also a rich fishing area, yielding lobster, crab, shrimp, herring, haddock, pollock and cod. Minke, fin and humpback whales are also found here in significant numbers. Campobello Island, just barely over the US border from Maine, is part of New Brunswick and home to the Campobello Whale Rescue Team. CWRT can be in the midst of the Bay’s prime whale territory within an hour when a rescue is needed.
Whale Rescue – Mackie trained with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, pioneers in whale disentangling, and is now a Level Five First Responder. Later, on a trip to Cape Cod to learn more about the whale watching industry, he met members of the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Research Project who conduct surveys every summer in the Bay of Fundy. Back in Canada, he watched one of their disentangling efforts and offered his critique. They challenged him to do better. He did. The two groups now work closely together when whales are entangled. The Aquarium’s researchers are out on the water as often as weather permits. When they find an entangled cetacean, they contact CWRT and stay with the whale until the team arrives.
Mackie, Robert, Joe, Bobby, Jerry along with scientific advisor, Dr. Moira Brown, make up the core of that team. They have worked together long enough to be able to anticipate each other’s moves, the key to a successful rescue. One man drives the boat, getting as close in as possible, while the other cuts the entangling lines. They trade off driving and cutting to keep their skills sharp. During a rescue there is seldom time to talk about the best position the boat should be in or which line to cut first. Insight and experience with both positions is critical.
When not rescuing whales, Mackie runs Island Cruises. He started the whale watching company when he realized that in order to have a boat based business of his own, tourism rather than fishing, was the key.
But Mackie’s loyalty to the local fishing industry is clear. He still calls himself a fisherman, and when neighboring fishermen expressed concerns about whale rescues, he was able to honestly state that his goal was to take care of the problem, not stop the fishermen. He and the team are also often called on to identify gear that has been removed from a whale; a task for which their background gives them insider knowledge.
Campobello Whale Rescue is supported by and works closely with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the New England Aquarium and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.