Monday, July 2, 2012

Marine Mammal Risk... Governance

I am not in the habit of following the politics of workers' comp policy problems but I do have a soft spot for marine mammal science policy.  What does one have to do with the other?

In 2010, an Orca whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was killed at SeaWorld Orlando.  The trainer was an employee and SeaWorld an employer.  At first, SeaWorld was fined $75k by OSHA.  In the last month, Ken S. Welsch, a federal administrative law judge for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHA), ruled on SeaWorld's fighting of the penalty.  He reduced the fines to $12k, reduced the most serious violation from “willful” to “serious,” and demanded that physical barriers must be in place between trainers and Orcas (although I'm not clear if it is just Orcas or all marine mammals).

The case has been covered by insurance industry specific news sources with particular attention paid to the predictability of orca behavior and the precedence that the case sets for potential future mishaps.  But other societal interests have conflated the issue with concerns for human and animal well being.  What has emerged is a public policy issue or more specifically, a marine mammal risk governance issue.  The risk is composed of several political interests with their chosen avenues of marine mammal science used to support their preferred outcomes. Hence, governing the risk is a political process whereby society struggles with the moral, scientific, and economic implications of the intersect between society and marine mammals and defining the proper role and responsibility of marine mammal parks and research centers.  Many of these interests and their perceived risks are represented in the specific issue above...   

Human Well Being Risk
The risk to human safety begs the question (especially, if you are a concerned insurer), "How predictable is marine mammal behavior?"

Apparently, SeaWorld claimed that trained orcas exhibit behavior that can be predicted with more than 98% accuracy.  Welsch, however, rejected the risk estimate arguing that it was not based on science.

The judge instead appealed to an Orca's free-will to argue that there, fundamentally, cannot be any certainty
"Once a trainer is in the water with a killer whale that chooses to engage in undesirable behavior, the trainer is at the whale’s mercy,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “All of the emergency procedures, nets, underwater signals and hand slaps are useless if the whale chooses to ignore them."
A spokeswoman for SeaWorld argued that the science was being misunderstood
These allegations are completely baseless, unsupported by any evidence or precedent and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care.
There is, then, dispute of what is considered reliable science to support safety decision making between trainers and marine mammals.

There is also a question of the predictability of an individual animal.  Tilitkum, the individual Orca that caused the death of the Brancheau, had also been implicated in two other human deaths at a different marine parks.  The heightened risk perception of Tilitkum is communicated amongst trainers but it was disputed as to whether or not SeaWorld took appropriate precautions to protect its employees from this particular Orca.

Nonetheless, trainers often feel that the risk of harm is worth taking for the experience of caring for these animals.  To them, the risk is minor because constant interaction over time fosters a relationship between the trainer and the animal which enables the trainer to identify or foresee risky situations in situ.  
SeaWorld animal training curator Kelly Flaherty Clark, testified that in a 25-year review of whale behavior she couldn't find a case, other than Brancheau's death, when there weren't environmental or animal cues that would explain an animal's undesirable behavior.  
"Trainers are trained for different scenarios," Clark said. "You have to recognize everything in the environment. It may be behavior. It may be weather."
This perspective also holds that their is greater risk in managing interactions from a primarily business standpoint as well as a risk in losing the cherished ability to interact with the animals.

Animal Rights/Welfare Risk
Captivity vs. No Captivity Debate- The marine mammal captivity issue dates back at least to the 60's.  The No Captivity interest has held that the size of marine mammals and their natural habitat range dictates that captivity is in some way inhumane.  At times, this interest also appeals to the potential high intellect of many of these species.  Several protesters had gathered with signs of "Throw the Book at SeaWorld" and "Stop Imprisoning Orcas."  Comments left on online newspapers seem predominantly focused on this issue (eg. here) 

PETA took a public stance on the case arguing that the only way to reduce the risk it to abolish captivity. 
[T]he only thing that will prevent misery and death in the future is for SeaWorld to stop capturing and confining wild marine mammals and to let these orcas go," said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk. "The list of human beings—Keltie Byrne, Alex Martinez, Ken Peters, Steve Aibel, and Dawn Brancheau—who have been killed or maimed by captive killer whales, and the list of orca families torn apart by SeaWorld's greed, will only otherwise grow. 
PETA backs their position using the science produced by ex- SeaWorld Trainers Jeff Ventre and John Jett who now work with The Orca Project.  Their science draws a direct link between the animals' living conditions in captivity and their "desperate acts of aggression toward humans." 

In favor of Captivity, is the view that a wealth of enlightenment is garnered from maintaining the animals in parks.  It is argued that the opportunity to be exposed to marine mammals that are naturally far out at sea fosters appreciation and understanding of them.  Joy is had by families that visit the parks and those that work with the animals.  Research findings of animal behavior and physiology is also gained. 

Economic Risk

SeaWorld and parks like it are large employers and tourist destinations.  The "killer whale shows" of SeaWorld are its centerpiece.  The Orca Shamu serves as the parks mascot and has long been central to the corporation's logo (Although in more recent years the logo has been altered to dorsal fins.  I suppose they could be any dorsal fin.)  Therefore, changes in the perception of orcas or the orca show creates an economic risk for the business itself and potentially for the larger socioeconomic system dependent on the park.  In February 2011, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Inc sought to refinance its debt $1.2 billion of debt.  In reviewing the company for rating, Moody's suggested that recent attendance was down due to Brancheau's death. 

Changes in the risk perception of trainer-animal interactions can conceivably be extended to include human-marine mammal interaction such as that which occurs in "swim with the dolphins" type programs.  These programs are available at many parks and resorts throughout the world and are a major tourism draw and fetch substantial participation fees.  The safety of "swim with..." programs is an active area of research and one can find any number of studies that will support that such interactions are dangerous or profoundly healing.

Marine Mammal Health Risk
The risk perceived by having marine mammals in parks are often argued to be balanced by the good that marine park facilities are able to offer sick or injured marine mammals.  Wild marine mammals at risk of interaction with human society, often by collisions with marine vessels, benefit from the veterinary abilities of parks.  Marine mammals have very specific needs that are imposible to satisfy without the proper infrastructure.  Marine parks have the infrastructure necessary, food in quantity and quality, and manpower to "rehabilitate" a sick animal.  Hence, SeaWorld attorney Carla Gunnin told the administrative law judge hearing the case that the resort has a history of rescuing marine animals and is a leader in marine mammal research.

On the day the ruling of the SeaWorld case was printed by the Miami Herald, on the front page, the newspaper ran a simple image (right) with a caption describing the care given to injured manatees by the local Miami Seaquarium.  The Miami Seaquarium has long come under criticism for the pool size of its veteran Orca Tokita aka Lolita.


  1. It is sad that the very rich and complex nature of marine mammals gets lost in such pitiful concerns as human self-interest, business and insurance nickel & diming.

    As a grad student I used to have an office at the U of Miami's RSMAS campus, with a clear view of Lolita's pool. It was quite disturbing to hear the same show every single day of the year, at the same time, 365 days a year. There was very little science or education happening in that tiny pool.

  2. Places such as SeaWorld & Miami SeaQuarium are profit driven commercial enterprises that contribute little to conservation, and to science, in general. SeaWorld decimated the local population of Southern Resident orca in the US/Canadian Pac NW in the 1960's and 1970's, until they were tossed out of WA state by the govy. (The population is "threatened" to this day) Then they (Don Goldsberry and team) just moved the operation to Iceland. The only orca research going on at SeaWorld (such as regarding artificial insemination) deals with how to keep animals alive, for profit. And there's no scientific literature to support theme park claims that captivity for animals, such as cetaceans, leads to improved attitudes and conservation, only nonscientific questionnaires with leading questions given out to park guests as they walk out of the SeaCircus. Certain marine mammals, like the manatees in photo, do benefit from the rehab services provided by theme parks, but it is hardly a justification of cetacean captivity for human amusement (not that you are necessarily advocating a particular position, I just think some of your presumptions are not based on fact). Thx for the piece.


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