North Atlantic Right whales have started to appear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Previously, these whales restricted their northern visits to the Bay of Fundy. The unexpected appearances in the Gulf has prompted DFO to make changes to the crab fishery and request shipping activity to reduce its speed through the area.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has announced a series of new measures designed to help protect endangered species across Canada, including the North Atlantic Right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The move comes after six North Atlantic Right species were found dead in the waters off western Prince Edward Island. Over the Canada Day weekend, three of the whales were towed to a secluded beach in Norway, P.E.I. near the Island’s western tip, so necropsies could be performed. The bodies of the other three whales were too decomposed to perform the post mortem.

A seventh whale was also found dead in the waters surrounding the Magdalen Islands. Two other whales became entangled and were freed, but the second rescue operation carried a heavy price. Joe Howlett of Whale Rescue died during the operation.

Joe Howlett (right) of Whale Rescue, and his son in happier times. Howlett was killed while rescuing a North Atlantic Right whale caught in crab gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The department has issued a notice to the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf of St. Lawrence asking them to watch for whales and to report any sightings. As well, regular notices will be broadcast on the marine radio system requesting all marine traffic to be on high alert for whales. Mariners are being asked to voluntarily reduce speed along the Laurentian channel in shipping lanes between the Magdalen Islands to the Gaspé Peninsula until Sept. 30.

There will also be a partial closure within the snow crab fishing area where whales are known to frequent.

“It’s with sadness that I offer my deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Mr. Joe Howlett, who tragically lost his life… while taking part in a rescue operation to disentangle a North Atlantic Right whale off the coast of New Brunswick,” Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominique LeBlanc said in a statement.

The minister went on to say, “Taking part in whale rescue operations requires immense bravery and a passion for the welfare of marine mammals. Mr. Howlett’s notable experience and contribution to whale rescue include his very recent and critical role in successfully freeing an entangled whale on July 5.”

At the time of the fatal incident, Howlett was on a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) fast response vessel working with DFO’s conservation and protection officers and the Canadian Coast Guard in helping to free the stranded whale.

“There are serious risks involved with any disentanglement attempt; the situation is unique and entangled whales can be unpredictable,” the minister said. “I’m mindful of the other individuals who were on board the vessel at the time this tragic incident occurred. I recognize it’s a very difficult thing to lose a friend and colleague. My thoughts are also with them during this time. I would also like to express my gratitude to all those involved in responding to the emergency.”