Death Of Veteran Rescuer Prompts NOAA To Suspend Whale Rescue Efforts

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's whale rescue efforts have been temporarily put on hold, following the death of a longtime Canadian emergency responder during a rescue operation earlier in the week.

According to a report from Nevada Public Radio, the news came a few days after the passing of Joe Howlett, a former boat captain and fisherman who had formed a reputable whale rescue team based in Campobello Island in Canada. Howlett was considered an expert in saving whales from tangled fishing equipment, and at the time of his death, he was riding on a fast response vessel and had just cut a stranded right whale loose.

The incident that prompted the NOAA to place a whale rescue moratorium took place on Monday in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence, as colleagues recalled that Howlett was struck by the right whale he had freed, just as it had taken off. Removing whales from fishing gear would typically require the use of long poles with sharp blades on one end, which are then used to cut fishing lines, crab floats, or other objects that may have wrapped around the whales.

In a prepared statement, the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium stressed that Joe Howlett's death is a severe blow for the whale rescue community in general.

"His death is a devastating tragedy, and those that knew him are in a state of shock. His loss will be felt in many ways."
With NOAA suspending whale rescue operations in the aftermath of Howlett's accidental death, there has also been some scrutiny in the rescuer's home country of Canada, according to a report from CTV News Montreal. The Canadian government is now looking into how the country's Fisheries Department responds to reports of entangled whales, and any efforts to free North Atlantic right whales from the fishing equipment they are trapped in will also be suspended until the government review wraps up. Rescue operations to save other whale species will be "assessed on a case-to-case basis," the report added.

NOAA's whale rescue suspension, on the other hand, covers all large whale species, per a statement from the agency's public affairs officer, Kate Brogan.

"Because ensuring the safety of responders is of paramount importance, NOAA fisheries is suspending all large whale entanglement response activities nationally until further notice in order to review our own emergency response protocols in light of this event."
As quoted by Maine Public Radio, Allied Whale spokeswoman Rosemary Seton believes that the NOAA whale rescue moratorium could be a good thing for the community, as she hopes it would allow those in the community to think of ways to make rescuing whales from entanglements "as safe as possible."

Seton, who works as northeast Maine's "stranding coordinator," added that most people aren't aware of how powerful a terrified whale could be once it's tangled up in fishing equipment or other objects.

"Even if the animal doesn't even touch you, just the force of it pushing away with its flukes can push you aside. It's immensely powerful and I think people underestimate that."
As noted by Nevada Public Radio in the above report on NOAA's whale rescue effort suspension, Joe Howlett's death is thought to be the first of its kind in the community dedicated to freeing stranded North Atlantic right whales.

[Featured Image by Stephan Savoia/AP Images]