Whale rescuer killed after freeing entangled whale off the coast of New Brunswick

Lobster fisherman Joe Howlett was passionate about where he lived, the work he did and the rescue operations he helped mount to free whales from deadly fishing lines.

Howlett was killed July 5th after he cut the last piece of rope from a massive whale who needed help off the coast of eastern New Brunswick.

Friends and family say Howlett had helped rescue dozens of whales over the last 15 years. He was a volunteer with the Campobello Whale Rescue Team.

Mackie Green with the group said Howlett had boarded a Fisheries Department vessel off Shippagan on Monday to help cut lines from a North Atlantic right whale that had become entangled in a heavy snarl of rope.

Green was not on the boat, but said he was told the 59-year-old veteran fisherman was hit by the whale just after it was cut free and started swimming away.

“They got the whale totally disentangled and then some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip,” said Green, who started the rescue team with Howlett in 2002 and had worked closely with him ever since.

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.”

Minister Dominic LeBlanc with the department of fisheries and oceans said in a statement that Howlett was working with other rescuers to disentangle a North Atlantic Right whale.

Taking part in whale rescue operations requires immense bravery and a passion for the welfare of marine mammals. Mr. Howlett’s notable experience and contribution to whale rescue include his very recent and critical role in successfully freeing an entangled whale on July 5.

At the time of the fatal incident, Howlett was on a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) fast response vessel. DFO’s Conservation and Protection officers and the Canadian Coast Guard took part in responding to the situation.

There are serious risks involved with any disentanglement attempt. Each situation is unique, and entangled whales can be unpredictable.

I am mindful of the other individuals who were on board the vessel at the time this tragic incident occurred. I recognize it is a very difficult thing to lose a friend and colleague. My thoughts are also with them during this time. I would also like to express my gratitude to all those involved in responding to the emergency.

We have lost an irreplaceable member of the whale rescue community. His expertise and dedication will be greatly missed

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team began after Mackie Greene witnessed a fin whale wrapped in fishing gear while leading a whale watching trip.

Since then he and his team have worked with over 20 whales, risking their lives driving a Zodiac up next to animals that can be 40 to 70 or more feet long, and cutting through the lines entangling them.​

​The Bay of Fundy is summer home to a large number of whales species which is an important feeding ground for North Atlantic right whales.

Mackie, Robert, Joe, Bobby, Jerry along with scientific advisor, Dr. Moira Brown, make up the core of that team.

They have worked together long enough to be able to anticipate each other’s moves, the key to a successful rescue. One man drives the boat, getting as close in as possible, while the other cuts the entangling lines. They trade off driving and cutting to keep their skills sharp. During a rescue there is seldom time to talk about the best position the boat should be in or which line to cut first. Insight and experience, according to a bio on the group’s site, with both positions is critical.

Howlett’s son Tyler posted a loving tribute to his father.

Photo credit: Facebook Tyler Howlett

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Peg Fong is also in recovery from newspapers

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