Killed Doing What He Loved–Whale Rescue Mission Ends in Tragedy

July 13, 2017 Updated: July 13, 2017

Joe Howlett, a 59-year-old veteran fisherman of Campobello Island, New Brunswick, was killed moments after rescuing an entangled North Atlantic right whale.

The unfortunate accident occurred in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off the Canadian east coast, on Monday, July 10.

Reports say Howlett was fatally hit when the distressed whale flipped and swam free of the fishing gear that Howlett had just cut off.

Howlett was cofounder of the local Campobello Whale Rescue Team and had been involved in some two dozen whale rescues over the last 15 years.

Only a few days earlier on July 5th, Howlett successfully aided the rescue of another North Atlantic right whale in the same area.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare reports that close to three-quarters of the North Atlantic right whale population have scars from past entanglements with commercial fishing gear, according to the Global News.

“There’s no overt conflict between whales and fishermen here, but the lines and nets used for fishing can pose a serious problem for the giant filter-feeding whales. Fishing gear in the whale’s habitat can be very difficult for them to detect and avoid. If they swim into the gear they can become entangled, often with life-threatening consequences,” says the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s website.

The whale species is considered to be one of the world’s most endangered. In a 2011 survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found less than 500 right whales in the western North Atlantic.

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NOAA staff and external partners disentangle a North Atlantic right whale off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida on October 14, 2008 (NOAA)

The whale rescue community has recently been gripped with a sense of urgency to protect the critically endangered species after the deaths of seven right whales since the beginning of June.

According to Canada’s Department of Ocean and Fisheries (DFO), it will take another 6-8 weeks for scientists to attain results from necropsies of the whale carcasses that may provide hints to the cause of death.

Following Howlett’s death, NOAA Fisheries announced it would suspend all large whale entanglement response activities nationally until further notice. In the meantime, NOAA will review its emergency response protocols because “ensuring the safety of responders is of paramount importance,” said Chris Oliver, NOAA’s assistant administrator, in a statement to the Canadian Press.

Canada’s DFO said it will not change its rescue response protocols, but will review fisheries in the area, according to a Global News report. DFO has since taken action by partially closing a snow crab fishing area frequently visited by the whales.

Howlett’s colleague and friend, Captain Mackie Greene said, “Joe definitely would not want us to stop because of this. This is something he loved and there’s no better feeling than getting a whale untangled, and I know how good he was feeling after cutting that whale clear,” in a report by the Canadian Press.

From NTD Television