Minke whale caught in the cracks of rescue system

Sept. 16, 2018


Communications breakdown, wrong equipment blamed for death of juvenile whale in Campobello weir

A communications breakdown and use of the wrong technique with the wrong equipment may have contributed to the recent death of a minke whale off the coast of Campobello.

That's according to a fishing group and an animal rescue group.

The juvenile whale, named Alice by local whale watchers, was seen belly-up in a herring weir off Nancy's Head just over a week ago.

Tour boat operators, the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, local whale researchers, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Marine Animal Response Society all knew the whale was stuck in the weir on Sept. 3. 

But according to the Fundy North Fishermen's Association, the fisherman who operates the weir tried to remove the whale on his own on Sept. 7 with a seine net. 

Fisherman acted without help of rescue group

"Using a seine net for an animal of this size wasn't the course of action to take, but that is what was done," said Andrew Reid, MARS's response co-ordinator.

"Advice was provided that the top twine of the weir should be dropped so that the whale could swim out on its own."

Reid said his group fulfilled its role in the case by informing DFO and local response groups.

The Fundy North Fishermen's Association wasn't initially informed of the incident but feels it could have made a difference.

"We can help solve these situations, as we've done in the past, by liaising between fishermen and government and other NGOs," said executive director Lillian Mitchell.

"We were disappointed that we weren't informed sooner."

Mitchell said fishermen don't always understand what's being asked of them.

Call to streamline communications

Mitchell declined to identify the fisherman who operates the weir by his full name and said he isn't one of the association's members. The group represents about half of the weir fishermen in the area.

She said she believes the weir in question belongs to Connors Bros. Clover Leaf Seafoods Company. Connors Bros. did not respond to CBC's requests for an interview.

In the incident's wake, Mitchell said discussions should take place to streamline the communication and reporting process.

"Right now it's confusing. There are so many phone numbers and so many parties that are interested and involved," she said.

"Who do we call first? Who do we call next? And how does that information get passed along the chain?" 

The FNFA was given a grant by DFO to develop "practical strategies and guidance" for fishermen when marine mammals get trapped in weirs.

The strategy highlights the use of a seine, but not the type of seine the fisherman used on this minke, Mitchell said.

Specialized seine net not used

"Basically the netting is wider to allow spaces for smaller fish to pass through because too many herring can spook a whale and the fishermen are able to keep more of their herring in the weir with the larger design," she said.

Mitchell and a spokesperson for DFO in the Maritimes both noted that the guidelines also stress that experts should be contacted for advice on a case-by-case basis.

DFO did not directly respond to the question of whether reporting lines need to be streamlined and clarified, but said it is working to recover the minke whale for examination and a possible necropsy.

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