U.S. officials are lifting a ban on some whale disentanglement efforts after briefly banning the practice that last week led to the death of a Canadian fisherman.

But the ban will stay in effect for right whales, “whose unpredictable behavior is particularly challenging during rescue attempts,” Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said Tuesday.

In response to the death of Joe Howlett, who died after freeing a right whale from fishing gear, the fisheries division of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration on July 11 barred anyone from approaching an entangled whale in U.S. waters.

On Tuesday, it announced that rescue efforts could resume, but that it would only allow right whale disentanglement efforts “on a case-by-case basis,” depending on circumstances and availability of trained people. The suspension of right whale rescues likely will remain in effect as long as Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans investigates Howlett’s death, NOAA has said.

Federal law bars anyone from closely approaching whales, except for those specifically trained and authorized to do so for research or conservation purposes.

Howlett, 59, died July 10 while freeing a whale from fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Shippagan, on the northeast coast of the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Howlett, who helped found the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, was part of a group of trained responders who had just freed the whale when it struck and killed him.

Here’s a video of Howlett (he’s the one in sunglasses, without a helmet) freeing an entangled right whale in the Bay of Fundy in August 2016:

Right whales have a reputation among researchers as being more temperamental than other species, especially when they are under stress, said Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at New England Aquarium in Boston who specializes in right whale conservation.

“Right whales are considered the most ornery,” she said. “They are very powerful.”

There have been no reports of any entangled North Atlantic right whales in U.S. waters since NOAA suspended response efforts on July 11, she said.

According to NOAA officials, additional online training is being required for authorized responders before they can participate in any further whale disentanglement efforts.

All Marine mammals and sea turtles 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 banned 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, where seven North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in 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.

It is only within the past three or four years that whale researchers have realized that the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a popular summer gathering spot for right whales, Knowlton said. Researchers have found fewer right whales in the Bay of Fundy in recent years and suspect that warming ocean temperatures may be driving a northward shift of the whale’s migration patterns, as has happened with other marine species, she said.

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

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., a funeral for Howlett was held last weekend at Wilson’s Beach Baptist Church in Campobello, an island on the U.S.-Canadian border that is accessible by land only by a bridge that connects it to Lubec, Maine. About 400 people attended the memorial service, the CBC reported.

If you see a marine mammal or turtle in distress, call NOAA’s hotline at 866-755-6622.

Bill Trotter

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....