Nfld. & Labrador

Whale fail: Head of N.L. rescue group calls new federal rule 'ludicrous'

The head of a Newfoundland whale-rescue group says a moratorium on freeing whales from fishing gear is "ludicrous."

Groups must check with DFO before trying to rescue entangled whale, following fisherman's death

Wayne Ledwell is the head of rescue group Whale Release and Strandings. (CBC)

The head of a Newfoundland whale-rescue group says a moratorium on freeing whales from fishing gear is "ludicrous."

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic Leblanc implemented the measure this past summer after a New Brunswick fisherman was killed freeing a whale from his fishing gear.

We don't need someone from British Columbia telling us how to take gear off a whale. They should be calling us.- Wayne Ledwell

Wayne Ledwell of Whale Release and Strandings told CBC this week that his group now needs to get permission from the federal government before attempting to rescue a whale, which he said is a costly delay.

"We would need to call a line here in St. John's to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and they would send it on up to somebody up in Ottawa," he said.

"It created a whole new level of bureaucracy, actually, in Ottawa. And then they would have to call someone up in British Columbia, who would give us the go-ahead to release a whale. It's pretty ludicrous."

Adam Burns, acting director general of fisheries resource management with DFO, noted the moratorium will be in place until a report on Joe Howlett's death is complete. 

B.C. expert available 24 hours a day

"Human safety needs to be paramount in the conduct of any of these responses," he said.

"As a safeguard for that, while we await the outcome of this investigation, we put in place this extra check-in where we're asking the experts, like Mr. Ledwell, who undertake these responses, to touch base with the department and ensure that in their plan of response for the particular whale entanglement in question, that human safety has been taken into account."

Joe Howlett was killed in August off the coast of New Brunswick when he freed a right whale from fishing gear. (Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium)

Ledwell said his group needs to get to a whale as soon as possible, and said it'll take too long for their request to work its way up the chain of command — all the way across the country.

"In this business, you can't afford delays. You need to get out and release the whale as quickly as possible, given weather conditions and given where they're caught."

But Burns said the process is much less cumbersome than Ledwell implies. While DFO's internal expert — who Burns said takes part in whale rescues himself — does work in British Columbia, he's available "pretty much 24 hours a day" 

Safety already a priority

Ledwell acknowledged that his group's work is dangerous, but said it's "pretty insulting" that they have to get permission now before doing it. Safety was already a priority for his group, he said.

"We don't need someone from British Columbia telling us how to take gear off a whale," he said. "They should be calling us, asking us how to take gear off a whale."

DFO's Burns said Ledwell and others like him on Canada's coasts are indeed experts, but said two minds are better than one when it comes to evaluating a rescue plan.

"It never hurts to take a moment and discuss your plans and make sure that what you're planning on doing is the absolute safest process that you could be doing when human safety of this nature is in question."