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.
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.
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.”