A conservationist has been killed by a whale moments after untangling it from fishing ropes.
Veteran fisherman and co-founder of a local whale rescue team, Joe Howlett, 59, was called out to an operation Monday after an endangered Atlantic right whale became ensnared off Shippagan, Canada.
“They got the whale totally disentangled and then some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip,” said Mackie Green, who co-founded the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, along with Howlett, in 2002.
“Joe definitely would not want us to stop because of this. This is something he loved and there’s no better feeling than getting a whale untangled, and I know how good he was feeling after cutting that whale clear,” Green added.
Howlett was an accomplished member of the team, with dozens of rescues under his belt over the course of the past 15 years. He had reportedly freed another whale just days earlier. Such rescues can take up to an hour and typically involve four to five people working together to free the whale.
“You’re dealing with a 70-ton (metric) whale that’s very upset,” said Jerry Conway, an adviser with the Canadian Whale Institute in Campobello, as cited by the Canadian Press.
“He is a very knowledgeable fishermen, and who better to do disentanglements than a fisherman who knows the knots and the ropes and the gear?” Conway added.
He’s going to be sorely missed by the community and he was an integral part of a very unique group of fishermen here on the island who were involved in doing the disentanglements,” Conway added.
Campobello is a small island community of about 850 people and, according to his colleagues, Howlett was a beloved friend and neighbor.
“The whole island’s in mourning here… Joe was the life of the party. He was always upbeat, laughing, telling jokes so the whole island’s at a desperate loss … He was a great fella and he really cared about the whales,” Green added.
“Taking part in whale rescue operations requires immense bravery and a passion for the welfare of marine mammals,” Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said in a statement Tuesday as cited by The Guardian. “There are serious risks involved with any disentanglement attempt. Each situation is unique, and entangled whales can be unpredictable.”
Seven of the endangered north Atlantic right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St Lawrence off Canada in the past month. The global population is believed to be just 525, meaning more than one percent of the population has died recently.
The whales, which can reach up to 16 meters (50ft) and inhabit the northeastern seaboard of North America, have been dying off at an unprecedented rate in recent months.
A team including marine biologists, federal scientists and pathologists carried out autopsies on three of the seven whale corpses and discovered signs of blunt force trauma.
The bruising was consistent with damage caused by collisions with fishing vessels and being ensnared in fishing nets for a lengthy period of time.
The team’s findings still do not explain the extent of the recent die-off, however.