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Volunteers on standby to help Fundy whales

BY DERWIN GOWAN
Telegraph-Journal
SEPTEMBER 09/03

    About two or three dozen people stand by, ready to rescue of whales tangled in fishing gear in the Bay of Fundy.
   This crew, many of them volunteers, includes a group on Campobello Island led by Mackie Green, a commercial fishermen and whalewatching tour operator.
   There is also the staff at the New England Aquarium summer field station at Lubec, Me., and the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station at North Head - a registered charity. Another group, made up of federal civil servants, works from the Canadian Coast Guard Station at Westport, N.S.
   They can call the Centre for Coastal Studies at Provincetown, Mass., for backup or technical support.
   The network kicked into gear on Sunday afternoon when people out in pleasure boats spotted a humpbacked whale east of Grand Mana n with some fisherman's gillnetting for groundfish wrapped around its tail.
   Jerry Conway, marine mammals adviser for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Maritimes Region based in Dartmouth, N.S., got word of the trouble.
   Heather Koopman and Andrew Westgate at the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station took their boat out and stood by, while Mr. Green arrived from Campobello with a rigid hull inflatable boat supplied by DFO for rescuing whales.
   The operation went smoothly, and the whale swam away free of fishing gear after about three hours.
   But, Mr. Conway said in a telephone interview from Dartmouth, the group from Westport, N.S., did even better on Sept. 3 when it released a whale wrapped in gillnetting, rope and other gear in less than an hour.
   Both of these operations came to happier conclusions than the attempt a few years ago to rescue Churchill, an entangled Atlantic right whale that went from the Gulf of Maine, around Sable Island, up the Scotian Shelf, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, back into the open Atlantic - before dying off Long Island, N.Y., still entangled.
   Mr. Conway said Churchill travelled 8,000 kilometres in three months, with well-wishers from two countries following him with satellite tracking devices - to no avail. He estimates this operation cost $200,000 - most of it spent by American authorities.
   The death of an Atlantic right whale strikes particularly hard, since only about 350 of these animals remain. They once numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
   The old whalers called them "right whales" because they floated after they were harpooned, and yielded large quantities of oil and whalebone.
   "Virtually, the right whale lit the streets of Europe," Mr. Conway said, referring to the use of whale oil in the days before the modern petroleum industry.
   Mr. Conway said there were three whales rescued in the Bay of Fundy this year, not counting two occasions when fog and poor weather kept the rescuers ashore. He said there were other rescues in American waters.
   The group in Lubec has training from the Centre for Coastal Studies. Fisheries and Oceans licenses the groups at Campobello, Grand Manan and Westport, N.S., to rescue whales, but they also have training from the Centre for Coastal Studies.
   Besides the boat and an allowance of $1,000 for fuel and related expenses, Fisheries and Oceans provides Mr. Mackie with $25,000 worth of equipment - knives, ropes, poles, and radio satellite transmitters to attach when weather, nightfall or the whale's temper forces the rescuers to back off.
   Mr. Conway said DFO provides "first responder kits" worth about $7,000 apiece at Grand Manan and Westport, N.S.
   Besides rescuing large whales, the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station runs a separate program for safely removing harbour porpoises from herring weirs.
   Laurie Murison, managing director at the station, says they have rescued 11 porpoises so far this year, compared to 244 last year.

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