Joe Howlett is being remembered as an "irreplaceable member of the whale rescue community" by the Canadian government.
Howlett, 59, was killed Monday trying to disentangle a North Atlantic Right Whale off the coast of New Brunswick, according to a statement from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The whale was trapped in commercial fishing gear.
"Taking part in whale rescue operations requires immense bravery and a passion for the welfare of marine animals," said Minister Dominic LeBlanc.
The cause of Howlett's death has not been confirmed, but one of his friends told CNN network partner CBC News, that he "was hit by the whale just after it was cut free and started swimming away."
Howlett was a co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team.
The veteran fisherman and the rest of the team were no strangers to the risks of whale rescues.
The team uses high-speed inflatable boats to reach an ensnared whale, then bladed extension poles are used to cut a fishing line. The vessels pull up right alongside the whale, then back off once it's freed. The whale can react instantly -- often rolling over. Rescuers could get entangled or dragged over the side of the boat.
But for Howlett, the work was rewarding.
"Once he finished the cut, and the rope fell away, you couldn't find a man more excited and happy than Joe for having accomplished this, and seeing the whale swim away free," Jerry Conway told CBC.
Howlett had helped rescue about two dozen whales over the last 15 years, CBC reported.