New Brunswick

DFO closes a gulf fishery early to help protect right whales

Both Canada and the U.S. adopt measures days after the death of whale rescuer Joe Howlett, who was killed Monday by the whale he'd just cut free from fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

U.S. agency suspends whale rescues after Joe Howlett's death in gulf

Six right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

Fisheries and Oceans Canada closed part of the snow crab fishery two days early on Wednesday as part of efforts to save the remaining population of North Atlantic right whales.

The department announced several steps to protect the whales two days after the death of Joe Howlett, who was killed Monday after freeing a North Atlantic right whale that had been entangled in fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Shippagan, N.B.

A close friend of Howlett's said the 59-year-old veteran fisherman was hit by the whale just after it was cut free and started swimming away.

His death prompted the U.S. agency that responds to marine mammals in distress to announce Wednesday that it was hallting efforts to free large whales trapped in fishing gear.

Reduce speed

Fisheries and Oceans said other steps it's taking include asking mariners to voluntarily slow down along the Laurentian channel in shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands and the Gaspé Peninsula until Sept. 30. 

All commercial fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence will be asked to watch for whales and to report any sightings

DFO said it will review fisheries in the area of the gulf where right whales have been showing up in greater numbers, with some encountering danger.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it won't try to rescue large whales trapped in fishing gear until the agency's emergency response protocols are reviewed. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

Six whales were found dead in June and at least two others had to be freed from snow crab gear in recent days, including the whale saved by Howlett, a Campbobello fisherman who was dedicated to protecting the mammals. 

Fishing gear and collisions with vessels have been confirmed in some of the whale deaths, but Fisheries and Oceans said it will work with partners to make sure necropsies are performed on all of the whales for a better understanding of what's been happening.

As well, a notice will be broadcast on the marine radio system for shipping and fishing industries to be on alert for whales.

U.S. agency suspends rescues

Money from the Oceans Protection Plan will be used to address the threats to marine animals and increase capacity to respond to marine mammal incidents, the department said in a statement. 

"The Government of Canada takes the protection, conservation, and recovery of endangered species very seriously. We will continue to work with our partners as this issue evolves," it said.

Meanwhile, Chris Oliver, assistant administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in a statement, that the agency has suspended all rescues of large whales that become entangled in gear.

"Ensuring the safety of responders is of paramount importance," Oliver said.

The rescues will be suspended until further notice while the agency reviews its emergency response protocols. 

"Members of the general public should never attempt to rescue a stranded or entangled marine animal," he said.

Joe Howlett, shown here with his son Tyler Howlett, died Monday after freeing a right whale from snow crab gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Shippagan. (Tyler Howlett/Facebook)

Howlett had helped rescue about two dozen whales over the last 15 years, and it was at the request of the Department of Fisheries that he freed the whale that ended up killing him.

On Tuesday, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc confirmed Howlett was working with federal conservation officers and the Canadian Coast Guard when the rescue was taking place.

"Irreplaceable member'

LeBlanc describing Howlett as an "irreplaceable member of the whale rescue community," and the minister noted that whale rescues require "immense bravery" to deal with the serious risks that come with handling large, unpredictable animals.

A number of celebrities, including Canadian author Margaret Atwood and comedian Sarah Silverman, took to social media to praise Howlett for his work to save whales.

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, nearly three-quarters of all known North Atlantic right whales have scars from past entanglements with commercial fishing gear.

With files from The Canadian Press