Right whale rescuers wary in wake of death, anxious for work to resume

One of the men who developed whale disentanglement techniques says the death of a New Brunswick fisherman was a wake-up call, but the value of the rescues is critical for the long term survival of the species.

Rescuers say disentanglement work critical, but understand freeze after death of New Brunswick fisherman

Wart, a North Atlantic right whale, was dragging fishing rope for at least three years before the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team in Cape Cod successfully cut the ropes away. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #932-1905)

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

One of the scientists who developed techniques to untangle whales from fishing gear says it was a wake-up call when a New Brunswick man died this summer trying to free a North Atlantic right whale, but the rescues remain critical for the long-term survival of the species.

"I was probably in a lot more danger than I thought in some of my work," said Charles (Stormy) Mayo, a senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass.

Mayo and his colleague, David Mattila, developed the disentanglement techniques that are now taught around the world. Over the years, he's been involved with 23 right whale rescues.

Charles (Stormy) Mayo is a North Atlantic right whale researcher at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass. (CBC)

Mayo helped train Joe Howlett, the Campobello Island, N.B., fisherman who was killed July 10 moments after freeing a right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It's believed his was the first death using Mayo's techniques.

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had ordered all right whale rescues be halted until the investigation into Howlett's death is complete. NOAA later said they would allow disentanglement on a case-by-case basis, provided the responders involved completed additional training.

"I've been as close as Joe was to whales and I've been, I think, overly confident," Mayo said. "And overly confident in an environment like that is not good and I think that would be my learning."

DEEP TROUBLE | Right whale in peril

One entangled whale has been spotted since the freeze, off the Gaspé Peninsula. DFO says it cannot confirm if that was the whale found dead Friday morning off Miscou Island.

The population of North Atlantic right whales is believed to be below 500. At least 14 have died this summer.

The Marine Animal Entanglement Response Team fired a crossbow with a modified rope-cutting arrow (seen in top left corner) to cut through the rope on Wart. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #932-1905)

It's a frustrating and traumatic time for right whale researchers in Provincetown, all of whom knew Howlett and are grieving his loss.

On Cape Cod, there are so many marine entanglements reported that there's a team that works on a full-time basis, responding to about one call every clear day of the year.

The Marine Animal Entanglement Response team cuts fishing rope, traps and buoys from right whales, minkes, fin whales and leatherback turtles, some of whom have been dragging gear for years.

Each rescue is different and complex.

Some involve anchoring the rescuer's boat to the entanglement and cutting it off. In one case, the team fired a crossbow with a modified rope-cutting arrow to free a right whale named Wart who had been dragging rope for years.

Scott Landry leads the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team in Provincetown. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

"I'm torn about this," said Scott Landry, the head of the Cape Cod team, of the decision to halt right whale rescues for the moment.

"It's a very awkward and difficult time for us. We're all thinking about Joe. We're all thinking about what needs to be done for right whales."

The right whales are in Canadian waters in the summer, so Landry's U.S. team doesn't have to worry right now about the freeze on rescues. But he hopes there's a resolution before the right whales migrate to his region over the winter.

"I understand completely DFO's position on this. Until we know the full details of Joe's death … it does make our job sort of difficult in a sense that we don't want to put ourselves in the position that Joe was in."

Amy James conducts aerial surveys of right whales in Cape Cod Bay and sends critical information to the rescue teams responding to entanglement reports. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Amy James also feels that struggle. She said the ban is devastating, but responsible.

"I don't think it can stay in place over a long period of time," she said.

James heads the aerial surveys of the right whales in Cape Cod Bay. In the winter months, she spends up to 10 hours a day monitoring them from the sky and reporting any enganglements she spots from above.

She said nearly every right whale she's seen has shown signs of scarring from entanglements.

"[Disentanglements are] their last chance, in reality," she said, noting that researchers and fishermen need to come up with ways to prevent them from happening at all.

In the meantime, no one is willing to suggest changes to the process until the report into Howlett's death is complete.

"I'm going to be all ears and listen to it, and then if people want my thoughts about what to do, I'll certainly help them," said Mayo.


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