Once again, the federal government is letting workers do the work instead of taking on their reasonability to address the problem. In this case, it is Maine lobstermen protecting right whales while government stands by and regulates others.

To be specific: During the summer of 2017, five right whales were entangled in snow-crab fishing gear off Shippagan, New Brunswick, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Campobello Whale Rescue Team in the Bay of Fundy answered the call. They were the only ones with the permit, and the will, to rescue entangled right whales in the Canadian Maritimes.

Two entangled whales were freed of gear. On July 10, the rescue boat approached the third whale. Joe Howlett cut free one of the lines with a long spear-like handle with a knife on the end. Howlett hooked under the second line. Cut free of entanglement, the whale dropped under the boat. The whale’s massive tail came up and came down, striking Howlett dead. The whale shook loose the lines and swam off.

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team stopped disentangling right whales. They had cut free gear from three whales: two males ages 6 years and 33 years, and one unknown-gender right whale. A 7-year-old female and 15-year-old male were also observed entangled in gear. These whales were left to fend for themselves.

For years the rescue team had called on the Canadian government to fund rescue work freeing whales. To no avail. With the tragic loss of Howlett, right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy, the entire Canadian Maritimes were bereft of rescue teams.

Instead of stepping up to fund a rescue vessel in the vicinity of the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow-crab fishery to complement the privately funded Campobello Whale Rescue Team in the Bay of Fundy, the Canadian government suspended right-whale rescues and closed the snow-crab fishery.

Soon six right whales were found dead and extensive necropsies were completed on the carcasses. For one whale, decomposition was too advanced for a cause of death to be determined. For one whale, the cause of death was chronic entanglement. For the other four whales, blunt trauma was either the suspected or the probable cause of death.

At least four right whales had been killed by ship strikes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence waters worked by snow crabbers, people who had suffered the loss of a good man and been put out of work by the government.

For the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to protect right whales in Maine waters, they need only finance a rescue boat to free entangled whales. Absent the ability to aid suffering whales, reducing the risk by 50 percent or 60 percent matters nothing for whales at sea and only in the courts.

Brave Joe Howlett’s death will not have been in vain when U.S.-funded whale rescue boats continue his work disentangling whales. Boat operators now know to back away immediately when the last line is cut and not assume that whales stressed by entanglements will be considerate of proximate bystanders.


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