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New England Aquarium mourns colleague killed while freeing whale

Joe Howlett, a lobsterman, boat captain and an experienced large whale entanglement responder, lost his life. New England Aquarium
Joe Howlett.New England Aquarium

The New England Aquarium is mourning the loss of a research partner who was killed Monday by a right whale he had just helped free from an entanglement in waters off New Brunswick, Canada.

Joe Howlett, a lobsterman, boat captain, and certified whale disentanglement expert, had worked as captain of the M/V Shelagh, a Canadian Whale Institute vessel that conducted joint field surveys with the aquarium, the Boston institution said in a statement.

Howlett, 59, was struck and killed Monday just after a whale was cut free and started swimming away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, The New York Times reported.


The aquarium offered condolences in its statement Wednesday.

“His death is a devastating tragedy, and those that knew him are in a state of shock,” the statement said. “His loss will be felt in many ways.”

Howlett’s death prompted an immediate response from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division.

Chris Oliver, the assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, offered condolences to Howlett’s family in a statement Thursday and said whale disentanglements would be temporarily halted.

“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,” Oliver said.

The aquarium said Howlett “was unique. He was a fisherman who helped found the Campobello Whale Rescue Team. He was one of the few certified whale disentanglement experts in Canada. He had already played a critical role in disentangling a right whale on July 5 when a Canadian survey plane reported another entangled whale on Monday.

During the rescue attempt Monday, Howlett, a New Brunswick resident, was on a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fast-response vessel, according to a separate statement from Minister Dominic LeBlanc.


“Taking part in whale rescue operations requires immense bravery and a passion for the welfare of marine mammals,” LeBlanc said. “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.”

LeBlanc added that any disentanglement attempt carries serious risks, and whales can be unpredictable.

“I am mindful of the other individuals who were on board the vessel at the time this tragic incident occurred,” LeBlanc said. “I recognize it is 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. We have lost an irreplaceable member of the whale rescue community. His expertise and dedication will be greatly missed.”

The aquarium noted that Howlett had over the years saved large whales of several species in the Bay of Fundy, his home waters.

“His skills as a mariner were surpassed only by the enduring friendships he developed with the researchers who worked with him,” the aquarium said, adding that Howlett regularly attended the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s annual meeting.

Scott Kraus, head of the aquarium’s whale research program, praised his fallen colleague in the same statement.

“Joe’s dedication to saving entangled whales was as deep as his love of fishing,” Kraus said. “He was truly a hero whose passion for the ocean transcended diverse groups of people and opinions. We will miss his endless good cheer, his thoughtful presence, and his steady hand at the helm.”


The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown also lamented Howlett’s tragic death.

It was the first human death in the history of the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network, a group of trained and authorized rescuers along the Canadian and US East Coast, the center said in a Facebook posting.

“To the end, Joe was utterly dedicated to conservation and had helped many individual whales in the course of his career,” the posting said. “His death highlights the critical situation whales currently face and the risks associated with this work.”

Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a senior scientist at the center and the head of its right whale ecology program, said Howlett was “an extraordinarily dedicated guy.”

“And that’s pretty special, because he [was] also a very solid fisherman,” Mayo said, adding that rescuers are vital to protecting the diminishing right whale population. “I know [Howlett] is one of those who recognized the plight of the right whales. They’re status is one of the things that drives people like Joe. . . . There’s so few of them left.”

Brian Sharp of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a group that sponsors Howlett’s rescue team, echoed those comments on Thursday.

“They’re absolutely critical,” Sharp said of the rescuers. “Because once a whale’s entangled, there’s no other option. The work is inherently dangerous, which is why trained responders are so important.”

Howlett, Sharp said, was passionate about making rescue efforts. “You have to be to be able to do it,” Sharp said. “Joe had his normal day-to-day job, being a fisherman, and the entire [rescue] team, they’re basically on call all the time.”


An obituary on the website of the Humphreys Funeral Home in New Brunswick said Howlett, a native of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, is survived by his wife, Darlene; his sons, Chad and Tyler; his grandchildren, Mason, Haylee, and Rylan; and many siblings, nieces and nephews, and in-laws. A funeral will be Saturday in New Brunswick.

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team, the group that Howlett helped found, works with New England Aquarium researchers, who contact the team if they find entangled whales.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.