Coast Guard fumbles
whale-entangling response days after announcing plan
BY DEAN BEEBY
HALIFAX - Days
after announcing it's primed to help entangled whales, the federal Fisheries
Department fumbled its response to a report of a humpback whale caught in
fishing gear Wednesday.
The captain of a whale-watching
boat spotted a juvenile humpback badly scarred and trailing rope in the Bay of
Fundy, and immediately reported it to the local Coast Guard station.
But the department did not act on the information for at
least three hours because of communication problems, an official said.
The ailing humpback was later swallowed up by poor
weather and couldn't be located.
"We have a complete
dead-end route here," said Deborah Tobin, a whale activist with East Coast
Ecosystems in Freeport, N. S.
"The whale, in the
meantime, has disappeared in the fog - nobody has responded to it."
The shaky reaction comes six days after the federal
Fisheries Department announced stepped-up efforts to save entangled right
whales and humpbacks in the Bay of Fundy through better co-ordination.
The initiative "expands the level of cooperation," senior
fisheries official Neil Bellefontaine said at a news conference last Friday.
Craig Theriault, captain of the whalewatching boat, said
he radioed the coordinates of the entangled humpback to a Coast Guard station
in Westport, N. S., at 11 a. m. Atlantic time. He also described its condition.
"It had a big scar on its back, above the dorsal fin,"
Mr. Theriault said in an interview.
The station took the
information but did not ask him to stand by the animal, as is normal procedure,
so that another boat could come to attach a locating beacon.
That initial report, however, was not passed on to Coast
Guard headquarters in Halifax nor to Jerry Conway, the only fisheries official
authorized to co-ordinate a response.
Instead, Ms. Tobin
reported the incident to the Halifax headquarters after learning about it
"Five minutes later, they called me back
to say we want to report this entangled whale," she said. "I said, well you do
know it was me that called. They said, yeah, but our orders are to call you."
East Coast Ecosystems, which once coordinated whale
rescues, was told last year by the Fisheries Department that whale
disentanglement would in future be handled by the department.
Mr. Conway, in the meantime, could not be reached by
anyone until after 3:30 p. m. Atlantic time because he was in a meeting in the
Digby, N. S., area.
He said he was told that the initial
report did not arrive until 1:52 p. m. Atlantic time, though Mr. Theriault and
Ms. Tobin both said they reported it much earlier.
official at the Coast Guard operations centre in Halifax, who said Ms. Tobin
called him at about noon, blamed the delays on communication problems.
"The problem is one of communication . . . I can't get
hold of (Conway)," said Garry Burke.
"He's the one who
authorizes (the rescue) . . . he's the guy who controls the purse strings."
Mr. Conway said he would try to get vessels already on
the Bay of Fundy to search for the whale late in the day, but was pessimistic
about what they could do.
"Even if we were to find the
whale, there's not very much we could do until the weather conditions improve."
In addition to the fog, the winds were brisk.
said the incident highlights the incompetence of the federal Fisheries
Department, which runs the Coast Guard, in responding to entangled whales.
"It's just another illustration of the fact that the
hundreds of thousands of dollars in Canadian government money has been spent, a
lot of effort has been spent, and we're in way worse shape than we were five or
six years ago."
Another entangled humpback was spotted in
the same area in early July, but has not been located since.