New Brunswick

2 separate investigations launched in fatal whale rescue

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc says his department is looking into ways to prevent North Atlantic right whales from getting entangled in fishing lines or colliding with ships.

DFO and Transport Canada continue to investigate after Monday's fatal rescue in Gulf of St. Lawrence

Seven endangered right whales have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since the beginning of June. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Two separate investigations have been launched into the death of whale rescuer Joe Howlett and the related entanglement of the North Atlantic right whale he freed.

Transport Canada says it will conduct an investigation under the Canadian Labour Code and Shipping Act into what happened when a Fisheries and Oceans fast response vessel set out to rescue the whale tangled up in fishing lines off Shippagan on Monday.

Howlett and three Fisheries employees were on the rigid-hulled inflatable Zodiac when Howlett was killed by the whale he'd just rescued. 

'The most important thing I think Mr. Howlett would have wanted is we take every step to protect these endangered species and the safety of those that are working around them.' - Dominic LeBlanc, fisheries minister

​Sophie McCoy-Astell, a spokeperson for Transport Canada, said she didn't know when the investigation would be complete and had no other details.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said his department is also investigating the incident, but its probe will include why whales are getting engangled in fishing gear or struck by ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year.

After the loss of Howlett and the deaths of seven right whales in the gulf since the beginning of June, the department is trying to determine what next year's fishing season will look like as it tries to minimize contact between the endangered whales and fishing gear and ships. 

"We're trying to understand what we need to do both to prevent these whales from getting entangled … or perhaps being struck by ships in order to preserve this majestic and endangered species," LeBlanc said in an interview.

The department also wants to make sure human lives aren't endangered trying to save whales trapped in gear.

Only 525 right whales are left

"We now have a very, very important responsibility around ensuring the safety of those involved in operations near whales," LeBlanc said.

Only about 525 North Atlantic right whales remain, and LeBlanc suggested Howlett would approve of government efforts to protect them and their rescuers.

"The most important thing I think Mr. Howlett would have wanted is we take every step to protect these endangered species and the safety of those that are working around them," said LeBlanc. 

On Wednesday, Fisheries and Oceans closed part of the snow crab fishery two days early and gave the fishing industry a deadline for removing gear.

Three of the five whales that have been studied in necropsies showed signs of having been struck by something.

In two cases, scientists could not reach a cause of death.

"However, samples will be further analyzed in an attempt to reach a diagnosis," said a statement Thursday from the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative after the two most recent necropsies, done on the Magdalen Islands.

LeBlanc said department officials spent a lot of time this week working alongside Transport Canada, trying to understand what happened in the incident that killed Howlett.

Joe Howlett, who was killed Monday after disentangling a right whale from snow crab gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is pictured with his son Tyler Howlett. (Tyler Howlett/Facebook)

LeBlanc also met with the three of the officers who were on the department's Zodiac with Howlett. The same crew successfully freed a right whale from entanglement a few days earlier. 

"It's an important responsibility we have to ensure that we've done everything we can to protect the safety of the women and men who work in our department," he said.

As part of its planning for next year, LeBlanc said, the department is also working with Transport Canada and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. to better understand the migration of whales. 

"That review will be robust and it will be comprehensive because I'm not prepared to have a season next year with this many fatalities of whales and this much entanglement," LeBlanc said in an interviews.

"If we know the whales are going to be located in certain areas, how can we either remove the fishing gear or prevent the gear from being placed there?" 

Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc says more needs to be done to protect right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the lives of those trying to save them. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Traditionally, LeBlanc said, the whales spend part of the winter along the coast of the southern part of the United States,  and in the summer migrate to the Bay of Fundy.

But this year, the whales have been found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where there is a large fishing zone and marine navigation route

A horrible incident like this reminds us of what can go horribly wrong in a freak accident like what happened on Monday.- Dominic LeBlanc , fisheries minister

This week, DFO has asked vessels to reduce speed along the Laurentian Channel and shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands and the Gaspé Peninsula until Sept. 30.

"Nobody has suggested to me the shipping and the fishing industry don't want to partner with us to take every possible measure to minimize the contact with these whales," LeBlanc said.

Howlett's death prompted the U.S. agency that responds to marine mammals in distress to halt efforts to free large whales trapped in fishing gear.

Remembering Joe Howlett

​LeBlanc said Howlett was recognized in the whale rescue community, not only on Campobello Island, but also along the East Coast of North America.  

Howlett has been described as "an absolutely outstanding professional, dedicated and passionate in the work that he had successfully done," the minister said.

"A horrible incident like this reminds us of what can go horribly wrong in a freak accident like what happened on Monday."


  • An earlier version said Canada was halting efforts to rescue large whales from fishing gear. In fact, the department says it will suspend rescuing North Atlantic right whales and will decide its response to other entangled whales case by case.
    Jul 13, 2017 6:28 PM AT

With files from Information Morning Fredericton