New Brunswick

WorkSafeNB abandons investigation into whale rescuer Joe Howlett's death

WorkSafeNB abandoned its investigation into Joe Howlett’s July death after determining he wasn’t being paid for his work and wasn’t an employee.

Federal government is conducting the only probe into the tragedy, since Howlett was not being paid for work

Joe Howlett uses a long pole with a knife attached to cut a whale free from fishing gear on one of the rescues he did before his death this summer. (Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium)

The federal government is now the only body investigating the death of volunteer whale rescuer Joe Howlett on a Department of Fisheries and Oceans boat.  

WorkSafeNB abandoned its investigation into Howlett's July death after determining he wasn't being paid for his work and wasn't an employee.

"We came to the conclusion that it wasn't a workplace fatality on Aug. 31," said Richard Blais, the director of compliance and regulatory review.

"That's when we ended our investigation."

That decision came after discussions with Transport Canada, the Campobello Whale Rescue Team and Howlett's spouse, Blais said.

For 15 years, Howlett and other members of the Campobello team have been rescuing endangered whales with little compensation from the federal government, which is responsible for the animals under the Species at Risk Act.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has relied upon the Campobello team to do rescues because none of its employees on the east coast are trained in the risky technique of cutting ropes off the entangled whales.

The Campobello team has called for more support from the federal government, as an endangered species hangs in the balance.

Transport Canada investigating

Howlett wasn't with his regular crew from the Campobello team when he set out on July 10 to rescue whale No. 4123, a six-year-old male entangled in fishing gear.

Howlett successfully cut free an entangled right whale, but was fatally struck by the huge animal's tail. (Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium)

Along with research scientist Philip Hamilton, Howlett was called to join a Department of Fisheries and Oceans crew on the rescue.

The whale was freed, but Howlett died after being struck by its tail.

His death has prompted an investigation by Transport Canada, but its scope and the questions investigators are trying to answer remain a mystery.

Transport Canada has repeatedly declined to offer details on the investigation, which falls under the Canada Labour Code and Canada Shipping Act.

"As this is an active investigation, Transport Canada is not in a position to provide information on the duration, specifics or possible outcome of the investigation," spokesperson Pierre Manoni wrote in an email Friday.

Campobello team not interviewed

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is doing an internal review as a result of Howlett's death. Those findings will be shared with Transport Canada.

Members of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team — David Anthony, Moira Brown and Jerry Conway — are calling for more support from the federal government. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

But the details of that review aren't clear either.

"As this is an active investigation, DFO is not in a position to comment on the specifics, nor share publicly any information related to the investigation," spokesperson Vance Chow said on Friday.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc has said his department's internal review could look at whether everything done the day of Howlett's death was "proper."

DEEP TROUBLE | Right whale in peril

After an unprecedented number of whale deaths this summer, CBC News is bringing you an in-depth look at the endangered North Atlantic right whale. In a series called Deep Trouble, CBC explores the perils facing the right whales.

"We can't ask staff of our department to be involved in circumstances like that, witness the horrible circumstances that happened to Mr. Howlett and not ask ourselves the obvious question — did we do everything that we properly could and what if anything might have been done differently?"

LeBlanc said he doesn't direct Transport Canada's investigation, which is "done by independent experts according to law."

While the federal government investigates, North Atlantic right whale rescues have been suspended.

As Fisheries and Oceans considers whether to continue the rescues, members of the Campobello team say they haven't been interviewed by investigators.

About the Author

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to