During a rescue operation to disentangle an Atlantic right whale from a web of fishing gear, seasoned wildlife rescuer Joe Howlett lost his life.
The endangered animal had become entangled in rope when initially spotted by officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A team of rescuers from the New England Aquarium, the Canadian Whale Institute, Dalhousie University, and the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, which Howlett was a part of, dispatched to help free the animal on July 5.
"They got the whale totally disentangled and then some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip," Mackie Green from the Campobello Whale Rescue Team told The Star.
Howlett died at 59 years of age after years of working to rescue endangered marine animals. He was an experienced lobster fisherman who helped start the rescue team in 2002. His expertise working with fishing equipment and ropes made him adept at helping cut entangled marine mammals free.
In a statement posted on their Facebook page, the Campobello team expressed their sadness at Howlett's passing:
"The Canadian Whale Institute is deeply saddened by the sudden death of Joe Howlett, a brave friend and hero who lost his life freeing a whale tangled in fishing gear... He was very concerned about the state of the ocean and the potential for entanglement of whales."
Dominic LeBlanc, the minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which supplied the boat on which the rescue operation was conducted, released a statement expressing his condolences and noting the danger of working with wild animals.
"There are serious risks involved with any disentanglement attempt. Each situation is unique, and entangled whales can be unpredictable," stated LeBlanc.
Further commenting to the Canadian press, Green added of her former colleague, "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."
Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimate 500 Atlantic Right Whales currently exist in the world. After seven mysteriously died in the span of only a few weeks last month, necropsies were performed on three of the whales.
In an emailed press release from the Marine Animal Response Society, a group that has rescued cetaceans in the area, preliminary findings attribute the death of two of the whales to blunt force trauma. Whales have been struck by large ships in the past, but the exact cause of the trauma is still a matter of speculation. Underlying conditions may have also played a role. The third whale died as a result of entanglement.
According to activist group Whale and Dolphin Conservation, entanglement in fishing gear is the biggest threat to whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Bycatch, the accidental capture of marine life, contributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcast Company, mayor of Campobello Island Stephen Smart commented on the loss Howlett represented for the community.
"If there's any silver lining, he was helping, right? It's a very, very steep price to pay."