Whale watchers mourn juvenile minke in Campobello

A whale-watching operator is calling for changes to the way herring fishermen deal with whales that are trapped in their weirs after the death of a juvenile minke off the coast of Campobello.

Young whale found dead Saturday, several days after getting caught in herring weir

A dead juvenile minke whale was seen belly-up in a herring weir near Nancy's Head, Campobello on Saturday. (Island Quest Whale Watching)

A whale-watching operator is calling for changes to the way herring fishermen deal with whales that are trapped in their weirs after the death of a juvenile minke off the coast of Campobello.

Joanne Carney of Jolly Breeze Tall Ship Whale Adventures said the whale was spotted belly-up on Saturday, five days after it was reported caught in a fishing weir off Nancy's Head.

"It is disgraceful really," Carney said. "This whale death was completely preventable."

It may be more work for the fisherman to lower the net and there may be some loss of fish, but this does not justify the high chance of death for this young whale- Joanne Carney, whale-watching tour operator

Carney said the whale was a juvenile. It was one of only about 10 minkes that have been in the area this summer. And it had been named Alice.

"I am obviously very upset," said Carney. "It is one of our minkes."

She called the death "very sad' and "a substantial loss to the whale-watching community."

Carney said she was told the weir fishermen attempted to sweep the whale out of the net, a method that sometimes leads young whales to dive deep or panic and swim into the net, getting entangled. 

She said experts recommend lowering weir nets, instead, so that the whale can swim out.

A whale watching tour operator in the Bay of Fundy is speaking out after the death of a minke whale off the coast of Campobello. 0:24

A little work to save a whale

"It may be more work for the fisherman to lower the net, and there may be some loss of fish, but this does not justify the high chance of death for this young whale with that technique," she said.  

CBC has contacted Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Connors Brothers Seafood, which has weirs in the area, as do individual fishermen, and the Fundy North Fishermen's Association, of which the weir fishermen are a part, and is waiting for responses.

Carney feels Fisheries and Oceans Canada shares the blame for the minke's death.

"DFO should have stepped in," she said. 

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team was aware of the trapped whale.

Rescue team needs OK

"Unfortunately, we cannot touch a weir without permission of the owner," said team member Moira Brown.

Endangered North Atlantic right whales have also become entangled in fishing gear off the coast of New Brunswick, and the federal government has taken steps to reduce the risks.

Minke whales are not considered endandered or threatened.

The Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station was part of the discussion about what to do about the minke trapped off Campobello.

Executive director Laurie Murison said she was included in emails to discuss the best recommendations for the fishermen who operate the weir.

Murison said hundreds of porpoises have been successfully released from weirs in the area, as well as many other species, including minkes, humpbacks and right whales.

"Each species has its own preference and unique circumstances," she said.

"Using a large mesh seine to try to force the whale out is not a practice that is recommended with any of the large species," she said. 

A way to set them free

She said the safest method for the whale is to drop the netting on the seaward side, make sure the top poles are separated, by either removing them or tying them apart, and wait for high tide, when most whales will usually swim out.

She agreed some weir operators are reluctant to use this option because of the financial loss when herring also swim out of the lowered net.

Murison said she doesn't know exactly how this minke died.

Its carcass was later seen on the rocks at Red Head on the eastern side of Campobello.