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Fisheries Department suspends some whale rescues following rescuer death

Joe Howlett killed while disentangling whale from lines


MAGDALEN ISLANDS, Que. (The Canadian Press) — Federal officials are halting efforts to free North Atlantic right whales trapped in fishing gear, following the recent death of a whale rescuer in New Brunswick.

Fisheries spokesman Vance Chow said the department is reviewing how it responds to whale entanglements, and until that review is complete, it is pausing efforts free North Atlantic right whales.

The department said efforts to untangle other whales will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc told CTV News in an interview Thursday that the federal government is investigating how New Brunswick lobster fisherman Joe Howlett died while rescuing an entangled right whale.

“We need to suspend that particular practice until we have the benefit of a Transport Canada independent inquiry into the circumstances of what happened on Monday,” he said.

Howlett died after freeing a North Atlantic right whale that had been entangled in fishing gear near Shippagan, N.B.

Ottawa’s move comes a day after an American agency said it was halting efforts to free large whales.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which responds to marine mammals in distress, said it was conducting its own review of emergency-response protocols.

Federal officials in Canada issued a statement Wednesday to highlight new efforts to protect endangered right whales.

Among other things, a notice was issued to the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, asking fishermen to watch for whales and to report any sightings.

Officials are also asking mariners to slow down along the Laurentian channel shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands and the Gaspe peninsula until Sept. 30.

As well, the government has imposed a partial closure within a nearby snow-crab-fishing area that whales are known to frequent.

Meanwhile, a group of wildlife veterinarians say several North Atlantic right-whale carcasses found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in recent weeks showed signs of blunt trauma.

The Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative issued a statement Thursday, saying two necropsies were performed earlier this week in the Magdalen Islands, and while one right-whale carcass was too decomposed for a preliminary diagnosis, the second had marks of blunt trauma.

The group said the marks suggest the endangered whale may have collided with a vessel.

Tests performed earlier on two right whales in Prince Edward Island also showed signs of blunt trauma.

As of July 6, seven right-whale carcasses have been found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Marine scientists have said they need to intensify efforts to find out if the lumbering giants are making the Gulf one of their primary feeding grounds, in a shift away from their traditional habitats in the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin.

The deaths represent a devastating blow to the whale’s fragile population, which is now only about 525.

Copyright (c) 2017 The Canadian Press