CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, N.B. — A lobster fisherman with a passion for freeing whales from deadly fishing line was killed soon after he cut the last piece of rope from a massive whale in the waters off eastern New Brunswick, friends and colleagues confirmed Tuesday.
They say Joe Howlett had helped rescue about two dozen whales over the last 15 years.
Mackie Green of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team said Howlett had boarded a federal 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."
Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc issued a statement Tuesday offering his sympathies to Howlett's family and friends.
"We have lost an irreplaceable member of the whale rescue community," LeBlanc said, adding that such rescues can be dangerous.
"Taking part in whale rescue operations requires immense bravery and a passion for the welfare of marine mammals ... There are serious risks involved with any disentanglement attempt. Each situation is unique, and entangled whales can be unpredictable."
The minister confirmed Howlett was working with federal conservation officers and the Canadian Coast Guard. As well, he said Howlett was aboard a smaller "fast response" vessel when the rescue was taking place.
Jerry Conway of the Canadian Whale Institute in Campobello, N.B., said Howlett had freed another North Atlantic right whale in roughly the same area less than a week earlier.
Conway said the death is a great loss to the community of fishermen and scientists who work to help whales trapped in fishing gear or struck by ships — the greatest threats to the endangered right whales.
"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?" he said. "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, who had known Howlett since 2002, said he didn't know the details of what happened but added that disentanglements never involve rescuers getting in the water to help free the whale. He said crews are usually on boats that are low in the water, and they use special gear to cut the ropes from the animal.
Howlett was the skipper of the research vessel Sheila, which was used to study right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he said. In the past month, seven right whale carcasses have been found floating in the Gulf. Tests showed one died after getting entangled in fishing gear. Injuries on the other two were consistent with ship strikes, researchers said.
Howlett left the Sheila and took his rescue gear onto the Fisheries vessel after this latest whale was spotted in the Gulf.
"He was very committed to this and he was very concerned about the state of the oceans," Conway said.
Green said Howlett was originally from Chester but moved years ago to Campobello Island, where he started a family and got involved in the scallop and lobster fisheries.
Friends say the death will be keenly felt on the small island of about 850 people, where Howlett was known for his humour, big laugh and generosity.
"The whole island's in mourning here," said Green. "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."
— By Alison Auld in Halifax and Kevin Bissett in Fredericton