Members of the marine community in the U.S. and Canada said Thursday that a Canadian fisherman who died freeing a whale from fishing gear was a longtime whale advocate who bridged gaps between fishing and conservation.

Joe Howlett was killed on Monday after freeing a North Atlantic right whale that had been entangled in fishing gear off New Brunswick. A close friend of his said the 59-year-old Howlett was hit by the whale just after it was cut free and started swimming away.

Howlett's death came as a shock to many in the maritime communities of New England and Atlantic Canada. Howlett lived on Campbello Island, a Canadian island which can only be accessed by road from Lubec, Maine, and he was well known in fishing and marine circles on both sides of the border.

The New England Aquarium said Howlett was a lobsterman, boat captain and whale rescue expert who helped found the Campobello Whale Rescue Team.

"Joe's dedication to saving entangled whales was as deep as his love of fishing. He was truly a hero whose passion for the ocean transcended diverse groups of people and opinions," said Scott Kraus, head of the aquarium's right whale research program.

The aquarium said Howlett was on board a Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans response vessel and had just cut the whale loose when the accident occurred. The aquarium said Howlett had worked with its own scientists in the past to help design fishing gear less likely to result in entanglement.

Jamie Matthews, a New Brunswick boat captain who worked with Howlett on a herring boat in the '90s, said Howlett's passion for whales grew over the years.

"He saw a need for it," Matthews said. "What a shock."

The Canadian Whale Institute posted on its Facebook page that Howlett was "committed to saving whales" and "very concerned about the state of the ocean."

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries department is suspending whale entanglement response efforts until further notice so it can review its "own emergency response protocols," said Chris Oliver, the assistant administrator of the department.

NOAA Fisheries will continue to respond to other stranded animals, Oliver said.