American agency suspends whale rescue efforts after death of New Brunswick fisherman

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

An American agency responsible for rescuing marine mammals in distress has halted its efforts to free large whales following the recent death of a whale rescuer in New Brunswick.

Chris Oliver, assistant administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), extended condolences Wednesday to the family of Joe Howlett, who was killed Monday after freeing a North Atlantic right whale that had been entangled in fishing gear.

Howlett had rescued over two dozen whales during the last 15 years.

READ MORE: New Brunswick island mourns fisherman who freed dozens of entangled whales

“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,” Oliver said in a statement.

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Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said in statement that they remain “firmly committed to the protection of endangered species across Canada.”

The department has confirmed they are issuing a partial closure within the snow crab fishing area where whales are known to frequent and  reviewing fisheries in the area in order to reduce any harm to whales.

The DFO is also requesting that boats voluntarily reduce speed along the Laurentian channel.

The Marine Animal Response Society, an organization that worked closely with Howlett, said on Wednesday that they haven’t discussed the option and they weren’t commenting on the issue at this time.

READ MORE: Six right whales dead in Gulf of St. Lawrence

Organizations throughout the country have issued heartfelt condolences for Howlett and his family.

Researchers at the New England Aquarium passed along their condolences on Thursday. In a statement they called Howlett a “long-time and beloved colleague… who courageously rescued whales and bridged both the fishing and scientific communities.”

“Joe’s dedication to saving entangled whales was as deep as his love of fishing. He was truly a hero whose passion for the ocean transcended diverse groups of people and opinions,” said Scott Kraus, head of the aquarium’s right whale research program.

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“We will miss his endless good cheer, his thoughtful presence, and his steady hand at the helm.”

Response from the Canadian Government

In a statement on 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.

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.

— With files from the Canadian Press and Sean Previl, Global News

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