Leviathan tangled in your nets? Mackie Greene’s your man.
New Brunswick man helps save giant mammals when they get snared in fishermen’s nets.
Campobello Island, New Brunswick
If you’re a Canadian fisherman and there’s a 70-ton North Atlantic right whale thrashing about in your net – threatening itself and your crew – who are you going to call?
Here in the fogbound Fundy Isles, almost every lobster or herring fisherman has got Mackie Greene’s number.
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Mr. Greene heads the Campobello Whale Rescue Team – three island fishermen trained in the delicate and dangerous art of freeing the leviathans of the deep from ropes and nets. If left entangled, many of the whales would die from infection (as the ropes cut into their skin) or malnutrition (when the entanglement slows them down or restricts their feeding).
Greene is one of only five people on the Atlantic Seaboard qualified to lead such missions. When the call comes, he drops everything and his team piles into an open speedboat and travels sometimes dozens of miles into the chill Atlantic to find the whale in distress.
“You got to wait until the thing surfaces, and when it does we try to rush up and get satellite and VHF [radio] tags attached to the gear so we can track it,” says Greene, whose rescues are supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “A lot of the time we can’t get one disentangled in just one day – it can be a two- or three-day operation.”
”Every time it surfaces you’re just wide open” – on the boat’s throttle – “trying to get close enough to see what lines you can get off, and you only have seconds,” he explains “Fin whales are fairly easy and with the humpbacks, once you cut one part of the fishing line, they stop and roll over and help you do the rest.”
North Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species hunted to the brink of extinction centuries ago, are another story. “I don’t know if it was because they were hunted so much, but they just don’t trust people and don’t want to let you close to them.”
A quick cut here, pulling on a line there, and eventually the team is able to get the whale free. But it’s dangerous work: the whales are enormous, powerful, and wild, capable of overturning a boat or killing a person with the slight flick of a fin or tail.
"A lot of people in small boats got killed during [19th century] whaling operations,” says Greg Krutzikowsky, director of whale disentanglement at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts, which oversees disentanglement work up and down the Eastern seaboard. “Our safety record – no deaths or injuries – is due to careful training, protocols, and procedures.”
A lot of whales have been rescued, Mr. Krutzikowsky notes: his institution has saved 97 since 1984, and Greene’s team has freed eight more on the Canadian side of the line.
Green gets calls a couple of times a year, usually from local fishermen who’ve discovered the animals in their gear. But he’s flown as far afield as North Carolina to rescue whales.