CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, N.B. — A lobster fisherman with a passion for freeing whales from deadly fishing line was killed soon after he cut the last piece of rope from a massive whale in the waters off eastern New Brunswick, friends and colleagues confirmed Tuesday.
They say Joe Howlett had helped rescue about two dozen whales over the last 15 years.
Mackie Green of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team said Howlett had boarded a federal Fisheries Department vessel off Shippagan on Monday to help a North Atlantic right whale that had become entangled in a heavy snarl of rope.
Green was not on the boat, but said he was told the 59-year-old veteran fisherman was hit by the whale just after it was cut free and started swimming away.
“They got the whale totally disentangled and then some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip,” said Green, who started the rescue team with Howlett in 2002 and had worked closely with him ever since.
“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.”
Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc issued a statement Tuesday offering his sympathies to Howlett’s family and friends.
“We have lost an irreplaceable member of the whale rescue community,” LeBlanc said, adding that such rescues can be dangerous.
“Taking part in whale rescue operations requires immense bravery and a passion for the welfare of marine mammals … There are serious risks involved with any disentanglement attempt. Each situation is unique, and entangled whales can be unpredictable.”
The minister confirmed Howlett was working with federal conservation officers and the Canadian Coast Guard. As well, he said Howlett was aboard a smaller “fast response” vessel when the rescue was taking place. But the federal statement offered no other details.
Jerry Conway of the Canadian Whale Institute in Campobello, N.B., said Howlett had freed another North Atlantic right whale in roughly the same area less than a week earlier.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, nearly three-quarters of all known North Atlantic right whales have scars from past entanglements with commercial fishing gear.
Another animal welfare group, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, says accidental entanglement is the biggest global threat to whales, dolphins and porpoises. And the International Whaling Commission reports an estimated 308,000 whales and dolphins die annually due to entanglements with marine debris.
Conway said Howlett’s death is a great loss to the community of fishermen and scientists who work to help whales trapped in fishing gear or struck by ships.
“He is a very knowledgeable fishermen, and who better to do disentanglements than a fisherman who knows the knots and the ropes and the gear?” he said. “He’s going to be sorely missed by the community and he was an integral part of a very unique group of fishermen here on the island who were involved in doing the disentanglements.”
Conway, who had known Howlett since 2002, said he didn’t know the details of what happened but added that disentanglements never involve rescuers getting in the water.