New Brunswick·Deep Trouble

Fishermen volunteer to become 2nd right whale rescue team

Stéphane​​​​​​​ Ferron is one of three crab fishermen who volunteered to form a new rescue team based in northeastern New Brunswick. They’ve been training since last winter, and have gone out on several rescue missions with the Campobello Whale Rescue team this year.

'Fishing is part of the problem, so we want to be part of the solution'

Stéphane​​​​​​​ Ferron is one of three crab fishermen who volunteered to form a new rescue team based in Shippagan. (Stephane Ferron/Submitted)

Stéphane Ferron is close enough to touch the whale he's trying to free.

The five-year-old North Atlantic right whale is wrapped up in nylon fishing rope. It's weighed down by an unknown something, trailing into the depths of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The whale has come up to the surface for air, and Ferron and the rest of the rescue team have precious minutes to assess the entanglement and cut the rope before it dives back down.

It's dangerous to be this close. One flip of the tail and the whale can do irrevocable damage to the small rescue vessel and the people on it. That's what caused the death of Joe Howlett, a volunteer whale rescuer who was trying to disentangle a North Atlantic right whale.

But the team has to be that close.

"We have no choice, because we have to get close to see where the cables are and the configuration of the entanglement," Ferron said in French.

Ferron has only done this a handful of times. He's been a crab fisherman for two decades and feels a responsibility to help the endangered whales. 

"These entanglements are created by the fishing industry, so somewhere someone has to do something," he said.

Ferron is one of three crab fishermen who volunteered to form a new rescue team based in Shippagan. He, Martin Noël and Rémi Guignard have been training since last winter. The objective is to eventually have a boat to respond quickly to disentanglement calls in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Campobello Whale Rescue team on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Nadine Guignard/Submitted)

For Ferron, the feeling of being part of the missions is hard to describe. 

"It's a big adrenaline rush. You feel you're doing something. It's a nice feeling."

They've come close to completely disentangling two of the three entangled whales, but there's still work to be done.

"It's exciting but it's a little sad because the whales are entangled," Ferron said. "But for sure it's exciting to see these magnificent cetaceans close like that and to try to help them.

"The important thing is to disentangle them."

Death toll

So far this year, eight North Atlantic right whales have been found dead and floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Three of this year's deaths were linked to vessel strikes.

There are just over 400 whales left in the world. Ship strikes and entanglements have been the causes of death in recent years.

No deaths this year have been linked to entanglements yet, but in 2017, two of the 12 whales found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were the result of entanglement in fishing gear.

'A big job'

Jean Lanteigne, director of the Regional Acadian Federation of Professional Fishermen, said the Campobello Whale Rescue team first approached the fishermen to see if anyone was interested in volunteering.

Fifteen fishermen showed up for the information session, but three had the time to commit to the training schedule.

"It is a big job and there's no perfect formula," Lanteigne said. 

Moira Brown, a member of the Campobello team, said that in 2018 Fisheries and Oceans Canada gave the rescuers a grant that compensates them for each time the team responds and pays for equipment and maintenance.

The team had been solely volunteer-based since 2002.

While the grant covers the team's training courses, Brown said anyone who wishes to join the team is there on a volunteer basis. They aren't compensated until they finish their apprenticeships.

The Campobello team has been busy in recent weeks trying to free three North Atlantic right whales from fishing gear. (Alison Ogilvie/NOAA Fisheries)

Finalizing and forming the new Shippagan team "is going to take five years, easily," she said.

"Apprentices, even after they go through our classroom and on-water training courses, they need to have probably 10 responses with a trained teams until they really understand how it all works," she said. 

Safety and whale behaviour are the most important components they need to learn.

Brown said being fishermen works in these men's favour because they're used to being around boats and working with lines and ropes, but they're not familiar with working around whales or with whale behaviour. 

In a way, the fishermen have been thrown in the deep end when it comes to learning whale rescue. In the first two weeks in Shippagan, two of the fishermen went out five times. One went out four times.

"They've certainly come a long way in their training," Brown said.

Members of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team preparing to make their first trip into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of the entangled right whales. (Radio-Canada)

There's no timeline for when the fishermen will get their own boat. Ferron said the Campobello team will decide when they've got enough experience to be on their own.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesperson Krista Peterson said that this year the department signed a five-year contract worth $1 million or about $200,000 per year with the Campobello Whale Rescue Team. That's in addition to the $232,000 in operational funds, and $448,842 for training and their new boat they received in 2018. 

Moira Brown said it's too early to consider buying a new boat for the Shippagan team.

A multidisciplinary effort

Ferron said when they go out on the water, the team has support from U.S. government and Transport Canada survey planes as well as Fisheries and Oceans Canada vessels. 

It's much more precise with planes because they can look for the specific whales that are entangled, Ferron said.

"Without the plane, it's very hard because the whales go under the water, sometimes for 20 minutes at a time, and when she resurfaces it can be at the same time as three or four other whales, and if the plane is not there, we might go to the wrong whale," he said.

Ferron said he hopes his team makes a difference this year.

"Fishing is part of the problem, so we want to be part of the solution."