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Coast Guard fumbles whale-entangling response days after announcing plan

BY DEAN BEEBY
Canadian Press
August 28/03

    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 independently.
   "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.
   An 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.
   Ms. Tobin 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.

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