The Current

New whale rescue policy drowning in bureaucracy, say critics

Why Canadian whale rescuers say they're drowning in bureaucracy over a new government policy.
Whale rescuers urge Ottawa to scrap new controversial policy that they say add hours to rescue attempts. (Whale Release and Strandings Group for Newfoundland and Labrador)

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The death of a New Brunswick fisherman killed during a whale rescue has led to a complete ban on freeing the endangered right whale.

Last July, Joe Howlett, 59, the co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, died freeing a whale tangled up in fishing gear.

Transport Canada has launched an investigation into the death of Howlett, who was aboard a Department of Fisheries and Oceans boat at the time.

RELATED:  Deep Trouble:The story of whale rescuer Joe Howlett's death

The tragedy led to changes in the way the whale rescuers respond to all calls for help, including a complete ban on freeing the endangered right whale. 

Wayne Ledwell and Julie Huntington, who run the Whale Release and Strandings Group in Newfoundland and Labrador, question the new policy.  

"I understood when they first started asking us to call in and say that we were going to release a whale, that's fair enough. I mean we were working under contract with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans," Huntington tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Wayne Ledwell releases a whale from a fishing net. (Whale Release and Strandings Group for Newfoundland and Labrador)

"But then it changed this summer and we were to call in and then that person was going to get back to us and let us know if we can go and release a whale," she explains, adding that then another person had to be contacted in Ottawa, resulting in delays and many levels of contact.

"it's added a level of bureaucracy which we can't understand."

Huntington says all the people involved in the calls to make the whale release possible don't have the experience they have. 

"We're going out to help them get their gear back in the best condition it can be and as quickly as possible, and releasing the whale as safely as possible," says Huntington.

She feels that Ottawa should include all the people that are involved in rescue to discuss solutions — "That hasn't happened yet."

'Safety is entrenched in the work that we do,' says whale rescuer Wayne Ledwell. (Whale Release and Strandings Group for Newfoundland and Labrador)

"I think it's gone on long enough. And I think what really needs to happen now is for Transport Canada to put this out and say 'yes, this is what happened,' stick it on the table — warts and all, and let the groups move on," says Ledwell.  

"The groups want to get out and get back working ... the quicker that's done the better."

In a written statement, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said:

"While the current heightened consultation process does represent an additional step in the response to whale entanglements, it is in place to ensure the safety of those responding to disentanglements while an overall review of our policies and practices takes place."

"The current assessment process is not designed to stop the work of third-party experts, rather to heighten engagement with DFO to help manage and mitigate risks to human safety. We are working with our third-party experts to implement this interim protocol and continue to rely on their expertise to undertake responses to whale incidents. The bottom line is to make sure human safety remains everyone's top priority." 

Ledwell responds to the government's statement saying, "safety is entrenched in the work that we do."

"We have our own safety protocols for dealing with these animals and that's the most important ... part of it for us," Ledwell tells Tremonti.

"We want to make sure at the end of the day that we come back safe."

As for the death of Howlett, Transport Canada said it is not in a position to provide information on the duration, specifics or possible outcome of the investigation.

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by Winnipeg network producer Suzanne Dufresne.