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Mackie Green: Canada's premier whale rescuer

New Brunswick man helps save giant mammals when they get snared in fishermen's nets.

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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.

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His team's efforts are particularly critical to the survival of the North Atlantic right whale. Scientists say fewer than 400 remain and preventing the deaths of just two adult females each year could make the difference between survival and extinction.

On the US side of the border, whale rescues are hampered by deep cuts in federal funding, but IFAW continues to provide adequate support to the Campobello team.

"The work those guys do is essential to the short term survival of right whales," says Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium in Boston who has worked with Greene and is a leading expert on the species. "They are the front line of defense."

"Someone like Mackie who has fishing experience and knows ropes and knives and boats is really important," he adds. "He has good reflexes and knows when you're in trouble, when you're OK, and how to get in and out without getting killed or harming the animal."

Growing up on Campobello, a beautiful, sparsely populated island linked by a bridge to eastern Maine, Greene looked up to fishermen. "I couldn't wait to grow up and go out and be a fishermen. But by the time I got old enough to, fishing had pretty much collapsed," he says. (Most commercial fish populations in New England and Atlantic Canada were devastated in the late 20th century and recovery has been slow.)

He started fishing anyway, but over the past decade has put his skills to other purposes: running a whale-watching company, piloting boats for scientific researchers, and teaching navigation and marine safety at the local community college. Scientists often call him when a dead whale is found at sea, asking him to tow it ashore so the cause of death can be determined.

But his fishing background has gone a long way in fostering cooperation with area fishermen, without whom many whale entanglements might go unreported.

"We get good support from the fishermen and they know we're not going to jump down their throats," Greene says.

Fishermen, he points out, are nearly as endangered as the whales; fish are rare, lobster prices are down, and fuel and other costs are way up.

When he saves whales that run afoul of nets and lobster trap lines, he reasons, he's not only saving a beautiful animal, he's also helping his fellow fishermen, who fear the government might impose regulations that would put them out of business. Fishermen, in turn, keep their eyes peeled for whales in distress.

"Fishermen get made out to look like the bad guys, but they don't want to catch whales," he says. "It's the last thing they want."