Deep Trouble

Rescuing whales 'high-risk' work government doesn't want to do, DFO email shows

Whale rescuers are in limbo, as they wait for the completion of a five-month-old Transport Canada investigation into Joe Howlett’s death while disentangling an endangered whale.

As whale rescuers wait for more direction from the federal government, an at-risk species continues to decline

Right whales have been dying in high numbers, and reproducing in extremely low numbers since 2010. (Lisa Conger/Northeast Fisheries Science Center under NOAA Permit #17355)

Months before Joe Howlett died rescuing a right whale from a Department of Fisheries and Oceans boat, a government official described disentanglement as expensive and "high-risk" work it doesn't have any intention of doing itself, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Whale rescuers are in limbo, as they wait for the completion of a five-month-old Transport Canada investigation into Howlett's July death. Transport Canada declined an interview for this story.

Howlett, a co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team based in New Brunswick, had cut fishing lines wrapped around an endangered male right whale when he died on July 10, struck by the whale's tail. He was on a Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) boat at the time.

No more disentangling right whales

In the wake of his death, DFO imposed a wide ban on North Atlantic right whale disentanglements.

At stake is the future of the North Atlantic right whale, a species that continues to be decimated by human activity.

At least two right whales were seen to be entangled in the months since his death and non-profit whale rescuers have been powerless to help.

Earlier this month, the decomposed carcass of a North Atlantic right whale was found on a beach on Nantucket, the 17th such discovery this year.

The endangered species has lost an estimated four per cent of its population this year.

Only about 450 North Atlantic right whales are left. An untold number of those creatures are living with scars from fishing gear.

'We're doing their mandate for them'

Wayne Ledwell, who runs Whale Release and Strandings in Newfoundland and Labrador, wants more input into the future of his craft. (CBC)
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for protecting at-risk species, including several types of whales.

But the federal government has relied on non-profit whale rescue groups, like Howlett's Campobello Whale Rescue Team, to disentangle whales.

DFO officers are only trained to "support an expert disentangler, but not to lead the response," according to a December 2016 email sent by Jeanette LaPointe, a senior program officer within the department. CBC News obtained the document through Access to Information.

"Leading disentanglement response is a high-risk, time- and resource-intensive activity, which requires specialized training and knowledge to safely execute," LaPointe wrote in the email, addressed to several other department officials. 

The disentanglers agree they're the experts. But they want more funding and input into the future of their craft.

"We're doing their mandate for them," said Wayne Ledwell, who runs Whale Release and Strandings, based out of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"In many cases, [DFO] can't do it. If you can't do it, then you should provide funding to the groups that can do it."

Pros and cons

Charles 'Stormy' Mayo, a North Atlantic right whale researcher at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., was instrumental in developing the technique to save whales. (CBC)
After Howlett's death, the federal government considered revoking permits for all whale rescue groups, the documents show.

"Given the safety issues, senior managers want to think about how to manage for human safety," Julie Stewart, director of the federal government's Species at Risk Program, wrote in an email four days after Howlett's death.

It's a "conundrum," she wrote, as she appealed to other government employees for advice.

Here's how the species came to be in such deep trouble. 2:57
Kristina Makkay, a DFO senior policy adviser, responded, outlining the pros and cons of stopping people from disentangling whales.

"Pros:

  • No more human lives are lost.
  • The department is seen as taking care of its people.
  • Reduces risk to department of lawsuits related to the dangers of disentanglement."

But, Makkay continued, if the department revokes the permits, more whales could die, and that could put more pressure on government "to come up with stronger preventative actions."

"It all comes down to whether Canadians believe that whales are people too, and saving them should be of a similar priority," she wrote.

The department couldn't find a section of the Fisheries Act that would allow it to revoke a disentanglement permit "for health and safety reasons."

Instead, it imposed new restrictions on rescuers, including a wide ban on North Atlantic right whale disentanglements.

'A dangerous undertaking'

Joe Howlett flashes a peace sign. The elation of saving another life drove him to do right whale rescues, fellow volunteers say. (Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium)
According to Charles "Stormy" Mayo, a scientist who developed leading whale disentanglement techniques, the solution lies in having well-trained people.

Howlett was well trained, Mayo said, but the task will always come with some risk.

"We've all known that it is a dangerous undertaking," said Mayo, who is the director of the North Atlantic Right Whale ecology program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass.

"If you go to sea, and you don't even go near a whale, there are people — good fishermen who know their way — and who die at sea. It's a dangerous place."

Still, he hopes the Canadian government sees whale rescues as an important wildlife issue.

Whatever the federal government comes up with, it won't have come from Ledwell, who has been disentangling whales for more than three decades. He said no one has asked him for his input into the future of whale rescue.

"That was unbelievable, actually, that nobody came here," Ledwell said.

"It's not an ego thing. But nobody came here and said, 'What do you think of this? What do you think happened here? Where should we go next with this?'"

The impact of a pause

Mayport, a calving female, was spotted entangled in fishing gear this summer. No one was allowed to rescue her. (Laura Ganley/Center for Coastal Studies under NOAA permit #14603)
Howlett's team members have said he would have wanted whale rescues to continue, despite what happened to him.

Since North Atlantic right whale rescues were paused, two have been spotted tangled in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Mayport, seven years old, was last spotted on July 19 entangled in snow crab gear, with a buoy line lodged in her mouth. A calving female, she was one of the whales who is crucial to keeping the species alive.

A second whale was spotted entangled in heavy fishing line on Aug. 28. It was identified as whale No. 3245, a 15-year-old male.

"The whale was essentially hogtied, with line through its mouth, leading to wraps of the peduncle," a report from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium says. The peduncle is the lower body and base of the whale's tale. 

No one was allowed to rescue either whale. They haven't been seen since.


CBC New Brunswick produced a six-episode podcast on the deadly summer for North Atlantic right whales. You can find it on the CBC Podcasts page or search for Deep Trouble on iTunes.

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