This past Monday, researchers with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium lost a longtime and beloved colleague, a fisherman who courageously rescued whales and bridged both the fishing and scientific communities. Joe Howlett, a lobsterman, boat captain, and an experienced large whale entanglement responder, lost his life Monday during a right whale disentanglement operation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. He was onboard a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fast-response vessel and had just cut the whale loose when an accident occurred.

The Aquarium offers its deepest condolences to Joe’s family, friends, and the island community of Campobello, of which he was such a vital part. His death is a devastating tragedy, and those who knew him are in a state of shock. His loss will be felt in many ways.

Joe Howlett
Joe Howlett

Joe 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 July 10. Over the years, he saved large whales of several species in his home waters of the Bay of Fundy. For many summers, he worked as the captain of the M/V Shelagh (pronounced Sheila), a Canadian Whale Institute vessel that conducted joint field surveys with the New England Aquarium, looking for right whales throughout the Canadian Maritimes. He was in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on his first such trip of this summer. His skills as a mariner were surpassed only by the enduring friendships he developed with the researchers who worked with him.

joe howlett with a right whale and calf in background
Joe with North Atlantic right whale Calvin and her calf on Roseway Basin

Joe’s big heart, affable nature, and undeniable love of the sea allowed him to work comfortably in both the fishing and scientific worlds. Nearly every autumn, he attended the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s annual meeting, a two-day scientific conference on the status of the North Atlantic right whale. He was also consulted by Aquarium researchers as they worked to design fishing gear aimed at reducing entanglement risk.

Scott Kraus, head of the Aquarium’s Right Whale Research Program, stated, “Joe’s dedication to saving entangled whales was as deep as his love of fishing. 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 New England Aquarium community grieves the loss of a great friend and a true role model.

Read more about Joe Howlett and his incredible contributions to saving entangled whales in The Boston Globe.