CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, N.B. — Canadian fisherman Joe Howlett, who died July 10 freeing a right whale from entanglement with fishing gear, was part of a close network of whale researchers and experts that spans the Gulf of Maine and Gulf of St. Lawrence. Howlett, 59, helped to found Campobello Whale Rescue in 2002. His was the first known human death in a disentanglement operation.
The Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network coordinates efforts and holds a permit issued by NOAA Fisheries in the U.S. to respond to whales tangled in fishing gear. NOAA officials collaborate with their Canadian government counterparts in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), commercial fishermen and nongovernmental research and whale watch organizations.
This network includes many College of the Atlantic alumni, including Mount Desert Island High School teacher Megan McOsker, who joined a right whale research team in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for a few weeks this summer.
Howlett was working as captain of the research vessel Shelagh for the study, which was a collaborative effort of the Canadian Whale Institute, the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, Dalhousie University and DFO Maritimes. Phil Hamilton of the Cabot Center was the chief scientist on the project.
Shelagh had been set up with equipment to help with disentanglements if needed, but that was not the primary mission. The team was “conducting a biological survey of right whales in that area,” Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said, “which seems to be either an emerging or a historically under-reported habitat for right whales.”
The July 10 operation, when Howlett died, was conducted from a DFO fast-response craft. A NOAA Fisheries plane also was involved, helping the team on the water track and document the episode.
Of the 15 confirmed right whale deaths on the U.S. East Coast, Atlantic Canada and the Gulf of Mexico between 2010 and 2014, the latest dates for which U.S. government figures are available, eight were caused by entanglements. Three of those were off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and one was off Nantucket.
Those numbers have been blown out of the water this year as seven right whales have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in a matter of weeks. Some of those are believed to be caused by entanglement with snow crab fishing gear. The traps used in that fishery, which closed for the season two days early last week as part of efforts to protect the right whales, are much larger than the lobster traps common in Maine.
The Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Office of NOAA Fisheries announced last week that they were temporarily suspending the disentanglement program.
In Maine waters, a team of Marine Patrol officers and Department of Marine Resources (DMR) staff are trained and equipped to respond to entanglements.
“They want to learn more about the specific events that contributed to the accident and then look at our procedures to see if there’s a way to lessen our chance of being in harm’s way,” said Sgt. Colin MacDonald of the Maine Marine Patrol.
On July 14, NOAA released follow-up instructions authorizing above-water assessments and documentation of entanglements, said Erin Summers of the DMR.
Then, on Tuesday, officials said entanglement responders are authorized to resume their work for all species of large whales except right whales, after completing a new online training.
Summers leads whale protection efforts for the DMR and is one of Maine’s representatives on the federal Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT), which designs rules intended to protect whales from fishing gear.
The TRT does not have any major meetings or decisions looming, she said, but Howlett’s death “will definitely affect the mood” in the group.
“There’s no impending regulatory response” besides the temporary suspension of the disentanglement program, she said.
But there is concern that the species is in decline. “It’s a big deal to lose more than one percent of the population in a few weeks. There is an air of urgency to start instituting something else, but there is no timeline right now.”
It will take years for information from the right whale necropsies currently underway to show up in the NOAA Fisheries documents, she said.
Her office is working on building and improving co-occurrence models mapping whale habitat and fishing grounds. They’re also at work testing the strength needed for the rope connecting lobster traps and buoys at the surface.
McOsker said most of the whales she sees now, both during this right whale study and at home in the Gulf of Maine, have entanglement scars. That’s a change from the 1990s when she began studying whales.
At the DMR, Summers said, they hope their data will help inform the debate about which reforms are “doable” for fishermen and most beneficial for whales.
“It’s something we’re trying to get out ahead of so we’re able to respond in an educated and meaningful way when regulatory changes are proposed,” she said. “We don’t want to burden fisheries with more regulatory models before we understand what’s happening or regulate people where you’re not going to get a conservation benefit for the species.
“The [Maine lobster] fishery has done so much work to get to a good place” working collaboratively with researchers and conservation groups to protect whale populations, she said “We want to keep that relationship.”
Many of Howlett’s friends and colleagues from Allied Whale at COA, governments, and fishing and research groups traveled to Campobello for Howlett’s funeral Saturday.
“What a lot of people think about with Joe is what he represented – his love of the sea that superseded any kind of differences in opinion,” LaCasse said. “He was, and is, a role model to all of us in terms of recognizing that we all have a love of the ocean and figuring out what to do together to make it all work.”
Footage in the video below of Howlett at work disentangling a right whale was taken in 2016.