Government monitoring, but not interfering with, entangled whales after rescuer’s death this summer

Photo by Canadian Whale Institute/Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life

When a right whale known as whale 3245 became entangled in fishing lines in the Gaspé peninsula at the end of August, officials were aware of the situation but did not intervene due to a government pause on disentangling whales. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans instituted the suspension in July after whale rescuer Joe Howlett was killed during a disentanglement effort.

Whale 3245, a 15-year-old male, is believed to have escaped on its own, as officials who flew over the area where he’d been caught later found him gone. It is hoped that he was able to escape the fishing line and join a nearby pod. Nevertheless, marine rescue groups want to be able to return to disentangling whales.

“We’ve had a few [entangled whales] in the last little while and people really, we do need to move on,” Tonya Wimmer, director of the Marine Animal Response Society, told the CBC.

Joe Howlett, a resident of Campobello Island, New Brunswick, had been rescuing whales for years, but he was accidentally killed during a rescue effort in early July. Since then, the DFO has halted whale rescue efforts while they assess what happened and try to develop new guidelines for whale rescues. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also suspended whale rescues and is reviewing its policy.

Right whales are one of the most endangered of large whales, and there has been a spate of right whale deaths this summer — fifteen of the animals were confirmed to have died, about three percent of the total right whale population, which is around 500.

I’ve been frustrated by reports that we don’t know what’s killing these whales,” Megan Leslie, vice president of oceans for WWF-Canada, told Desmog CanadaWe do. We know it’s human activity. There haven’t been necropsies on all of the whales, but the ones where there have been it’s clearly been blunt force trauma from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.”

The DFO is also trying to develop rules around fishing gear to help prevent entanglements. Alexandra Barron, an ocean conservation manager for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, told Desmog Canada that she hopes they can institute rules in time. “These immediate measures are desperately needed.”

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