Right whale rescuers wary in wake of death, anxious for work to resume – Nova Scotia

After an unprecedented number of deaths this summer, CBC News is bringing you an in-depth look at the endangered North Atlantic right whale. This week, in a series called “Deep Trouble,” CBC explores the perils of trying to rescue entangled right whale​s.


One of the scientists who developed techniques to untangle whales from fishing gear says it was a wake-up call when a New Brunswick man died this summer trying to free a North Atlantic right whale, but the rescues remain critical for the long-term survival of the species.

“I was probably in a lot more danger than I thought in some of my work,” said Charles (Stormy) Mayo, a senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass.

Mayo and his colleague, David Mattila, developed the disentanglement techniques that are now taught around the world. Over the years, he’s been involved with 23 right whale rescues.

Charles (Stormy) Mayo is a North Atlantic right whale researcher at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Mayo helped train Joe Howlett, the Campobello Island, N.B., fisherman who was killed July 10 moments after freeing a right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s believed his was the first death using Mayo’s techniques.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ordered all right whale rescues be halted until the investigation into Howlett’s death is complete.

“I’ve been as close as Joe was to whales and I’ve been, I think, overly confident,” Mayo said. “And overly confident in an environment like that is not good and I think that would be my learning.”

One entangled whale has been spotted since the freeze, off the Gaspé Peninsula. DFO says it cannot confirm if that was the whale found dead Friday morning off Miscou Island.

The population of North Atlantic right whales is believed to be below 500. At least 14 have died this summer.

The Marine Animal Entanglement Response Team fired a crossbow with a modified rope-cutting arrow (seen in top left corner) to cut through the rope on Wart. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #932-1905)

It’s a frustrating and traumatic time for right whale researchers in Provincetown, all of whom knew Howlett and are grieving his loss.

On Cape Cod, there are so many marine entanglements reported that there’s a team that works on a full-time basis, responding to about one call every clear day of the…

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