U.S. officials are temporarily barring anyone from approaching an entangled whale after a Canadian fisherman was killed trying to free one in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Joe Howlett, a fisherman from Campobello, was struck by a North Atlantic right whale on July 10, moments after he and other responders had freed it from fishing gear near Shippagan, New Brunswick, on the province’s northeast coast.

“Because ensuring the safety of responders is of paramount importance, NOAA Fisheries is suspending all large whale entanglement response activities nationally until further notice, in order to review our own emergency response protocols in light of this event,” said Chris Oliver, assistant administrator for the fisheries division of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Marine mammals are protected under federal law, which means it is illegal to harass or harm them. Exceptions are made for properly trained people who are pre-approved by NOAA to respond to entanglements or strandings. By suspending entanglement responses, NOAA temporarily is banning anyone from approaching or trying to free an entangled whale.

Disentanglement efforts have been intense this past month in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is ringed by five Canadian provinces, as seven North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in the gulf over the past several weeks. The causes of death for each one have not been determined. Researchers estimate that the critically endangered species has a population of only roughly 500 individual whales.

NOAA Fisheries and its partner agencies will continue to respond to all other reported stranding of marine mammals in distress, but Oliver emphasized that those efforts are technically challenging and should be attempted only by trained experts.

“Members of the general public should never attempt to rescue a stranded or entangled marine animal,” he said.

NOAA officials did not respond Thursday to additional requests for comment.

Cathrine Macort, spokeswoman for Provincetown, Mass.-based Center for Coastal Studies, said Thursday that staffers at the marine research nonprofit entity still were “reeling” from Howlett’s death. CCS is authorized by both U.S. and Canadian officials to disentangle whales, and many people there worked with Howlett on such responses.

Macort said Howlett is the first person killed by a whale during a disentanglement since a formal network of governmental and nonprofit entities in Canada and the U.S. began responding to whale entanglements in the 1970s.

What the suspension of response efforts means, Macort added, is not clear. She said that CCS so far this year has been involved in two successful whale disentanglements — one off the Georgia coast and another on July 5 in the gulf of St. Lawrence — but that the nonprofit did not know how long the temporary halt on response efforts might last.

“We have no idea at this point,” Macort said.

How many whales might get entangled in the meantime is impossible to know, she said, as the vast majority of entanglements are believed to go undetected. In 2016, CCS responded to 19 disentanglements off the eastern coasts of Canada and the U.S. The prior year, it responded to 11.

In a separate statement on Tuesday, the New England Aquarium in Boston described Howlett as a “longtime and beloved colleague” who “courageously rescued whales and bridged both the fishing and scientific communities.”

Howlett was one of the few certified whale disentanglement experts in Canada, NEAQ officials said, and helped found the whale rescue team on Campobello, an island that is accessible by land only by a bridge that crosses the border from Lubec, Maine.

Howlett consulted aquarium researchers on fishing gear designs aimed at reducing entanglement risks, aquarium officials wrote in the release, and had “played a critical role” in disentangling a right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on July 5.

“His skills as a mariner were surpassed only by the enduring friendships he developed with the researchers who worked with him,” they said. “Joe’s big heart, affable nature and undeniable love of the sea allowed him to work comfortably in both the fishing and scientific worlds.”

Bob Bowman, a former disentanglement coordinator for CCS who now splits his time between homes in St. Stephen, N.B. and Mount Desert Island, said Thursday that he was “stunned and heartbroken” at Howlett’s death. He said Howlett knew of the dangers in trying to free entangled whales.

Bowman praised the dedication and professionalism of the trained responders who work to free entangled whales, which he called “dangerous, impossibly complex work,” but he criticized government reliance on such efforts, which he said is not a legitimate conservation strategy for protecting whales.

“Hundreds of whales encounter commercial fishing gear in the Gulf of Maine every year,” Bowman wrote in a message to the Bangor Daily News. “Nearly every humpback and right whale (perhaps all) will encounter gear at least once, probably multiple times, in their lifetimes. Any one of these encounters is potentially lethal. The vast majority of large whale entanglements will receive no response because they are never reported (fewer than 10 percent are). Many whales, especially smaller whales, die without been seen. For others that survive their initial entanglement it is already too late for them by the time they are seen. Despite being ‘rescued,’ these whales will carry the agonizing effects of injury and infection for years.
We can and should debate the value of disentanglement as an emergency response. But here’s the thing: until Joe’s death, disentangling whales had been the government’s primary conservation strategy in respect to fishery interactions with whales. That is not legitimate, it never was, and it needs to stop. We can do better.”

If you see a marine animal in distress, call NOAA’s hotline at 866-755-6622

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....