New Brunswick island mourns fisherman who freed dozens of entangled whales

Captain Joe Howlett, right, and his son Tyler Howlett are pictured in this undated photo. Joe was killed after freeing a whale during a rescue mission off the New Brunswick coast on Monday, July 10, 2017. Courtesy: Tyler Howlett

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 Greene 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.

Greene 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 Greene, who started the rescue team with Howlett in 2002 and had worked closely with him ever since.

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“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.”

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A statement from the federal Fisheries Department said Monday only that someone was killed on board one of its vessels, but it did not provide any details out of respect for family members.

“The department is deeply saddened by this incident and sends its thoughts and condolences to the individual’s family,” spokeswoman Krista Petersen said.

In a separate statement Tuesday, DFO Minister Dominic LeBlanc said whale rescue operations require “immense bravery” and offered his sympathies to Howlett’s family and friends.

“We have lost an irreplaceable member of the whale rescue community,” LeBlanc said.

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.

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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.

READ MORE: Endangered North Atlantic right whale freed from fishing line

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. He said crews are usually on boats that are low in the water, and they use special gear to cut the ropes from the animal.

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Howlett was the skipper of the research vessel Sheila, which was used to study right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he said. In the past month, seven right whale carcasses have been found floating in the Gulf. Tests showed one died after getting caught in fishing gear. Injuries on the other two were consistent with ship strikes, researchers said.

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Howlett left the Sheila and took his rescue gear onto the Fisheries vessel after this latest whale was spotted in the Gulf.

“He was very committed to this and he was very concerned about the state of the oceans,” Conway said.

Greene said Howlett was originally from Chester, N.S., but moved years ago to Campobello Island, where he started a family and got involved in the scallop and lobster fisheries.

Friends say the death will be keenly felt on the small island of about 850 people, where Howlett was known for his humour, big laugh and generosity.

“The whole island’s in mourning here,” said Greene. “Joe was the life of the party. He was always upbeat, laughing, telling jokes, so the whole island’s at a desperate loss … He was a great fella and he really cared about the whales.”

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With files from Sean Previl, Global News