The “green light” for rescue groups to disentangle North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has been put “on pause” since July.
The decision by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada comes in light of the death of well-known fisherman and whale rescuer, Joe Howlett.
Howlett was a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team and lost his life on July 10, while he was disentangling a North Atlantic Right Whale.
Despite understanding the purpose of the review, marine animal advocates say, the federal government needs to take “swifter action” to the ongoing issue of entangled whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“Until we’ve really reduced the risks from the human activities, we do need to be able to allow these teams to do their jobs that they’re highly trained and specialized at doing,” said Tonya Wimmer, the executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society [MARS].
Wimmer said the pause was expected but that as time passes, entanglements are still happening without the ability for whale rescue groups to help.
“It’s been about a month or more, we have had several other animals entangled during that time and response can’t be mounted,” Wimmer said.
Wimmer said the presence of the endangered right whale species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is “new over the past few years.”
She said it’s an area heavily populated with shipping traffic and commercial fishing.
“Unless we’re going to really focus a lot on mitigation and make sure we can get that risk down to almost zero to these animals, you do still need to these teams and they have to be at play basically,” Wimmer said.
Ten North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in the past two months.
It’s an “unprecedented” number, according to the federal fisheries department and an issue that’s come with little answers.
In a statement from the federal government, they say disentanglements can only be carried out by those with a licence and the people who carry that certification have been asked to suspend whale disentanglements until further notice.
“It is in place to ensure the safety of those responding to disentanglements while an overall review of our policies and practices takes place,” said Vance Chow, communications advisor with DFO.
At this time, he said, North Atlantic right whale disentanglement activity is not authorized, but if other species of whales are spotted entangled the DFO will be part of the assessment process of disentanglement activities. Chow said the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also reviewing its protocols.
He added Transport Canada’s Marine Occupational Health and Safety team is conducting an investigation into the Howlett’s death, though further details of the accident are still being kept private.
— With files from Sean Previl, Global News