Posted by: The ocean update | October 30, 2010

Dolphin death data collected, not analyzed (USA)

SeaWorld San Diego asserts that the animals it cares for, such as bottlenose dolphins, live as long or longer in captivity than their counterparts in the wild. Several of SeaWorld’s captive dolphins have lived into their 30s

 Critics say feds should review for trends, issues

Saturday, October 30, 2010 (Mike Lee). When Sumar the killer whale died unexpectedly at SeaWorld San Diego on Sept. 7, company officials issued a statement mourning the loss of the 12-year-old orca and fans poured out their sadness on the Internet.

What most of them probably didn’t know was how common it is for members of the dolphin family, which includes orcas, to pass away at the local facility.

Sumar was the fourth orca to die at SeaWorld San Diego since 1985, according to the Marine Mammal Inventory Report, maintained by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In addition to those, federal figures show, 42 non-orca dolphins died at SeaWorld San Diego over that same timespan.

Whether that record is troubling — or more likely, laudable — is an open question because federal regulators don’t follow up with statistical analysis to highlight problematic trends at more than 30 facilities nationwide that maintain captive dolphins and whales. The inventory shows:

• Ten members of the dolphin family died at SeaWorld San Diego in the 1980s, 14 in the 1990s and 22 since 2000. The company attributed the increase to its growing population of marine mammals and the end of the natural lifespan for early members of its collection.

• The average age of death for dolphins was at least 16, although it may be much longer because birth dates aren’t known for dolphins captured from the wild. SeaWorld said studies of wild dolphin lifespans show a range from 11 to 20 years.

• At least 12 dolphins at SeaWorld San Diego have died from pneumonia, the leading cause of death. The company says the prevalence of the disease is not abnormal compared to the wild. Other causes of death included gastric ulcer, cerebral hemhorrage, bacterial infections and pleuritis, an inflamation of the lung lining.

The Marine Mammal Inventory is mandated by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to track basic details about captive animals. It requires holders of marine mammals to to report information about the animals’ species, birth date, sex, death date and cause of death. The reporting notes the source of each animal — whether it’s from the wild or another facility.

The inventory doesn’t include any facility comparisons or statistical analysis such as survival rates and average life spans.

Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for the fisheries service, said reviewing the data is outside of her agency’s jurisdiction and “there is nothing preventing anyone from conducting their own analysis on the data.”

Doug DeMaster, science director of the agency’s fisheries center in Alaska, said the agency should be doing such analysis but lacks the funds.

“It ought to be automated and come out as part of the annual report on the NMFS website,” he said.

DeMaster, who has written more than 100 papers about marine mammals, first became interested in the subject of captive survival rates when he was at the federal fisheries center La Jolla during the late 1980s. He’s published at least three articles comparing the survival of marine mammals at different facilities, but said he’s had other priorities since taking his current post in Alaska in 2001.

His research detected significant differences in survival at sites nationwide. DeMaster used code numbers instead of names of the facilities in his academic reports and said he could not reconstruct the data today to figure out how SeaWorld fared.

“If somebody is below the industry average,” he said, “you ought to go in and look at what factors are responsible.”

Another option is for the captive-display companies and institutions to publish their own analyses of survival rates, a possibility DeMaster said he’s raised with industry officials.

“It seems like every time we are at a meeting where we are talking about this, we say, ‘It seems like (company leaders) have a responsibility to inform the public about your performance,’” DeMaster said. “When an animal dies, people want to know.”

Animal advocates and critics of captive animal programs are particlarly interested in such data.

“Arguably, one of the reasons for maintaining a public marine mammal inventory is so that the government can keep an eye on trends, lax facilities and the animals themselves,” said Naomi Rose, a senior scientist at the Humane Society in Maryland. “But if a facility is doing poorly, regulators don’t know because they are not doing any analysis. The database becomes an enormous waste.”

SeaWorld officials said their record of care is exemplary and federal oversight is sufficient. They said they have worked with academic experts to diagnose and treat respiratory illnesses in their animals.

“We conduct necropsies to understand causes of death, and also contribute to a better understanding of these species,” the company said in a statement. “There is no need for any additional reporting or analysis on dolphin mortality.”

SeaWorld leaders assert that animals they care for, such as bottlenose dolphins, live as long or longer in captivity than their counterparts in the wild.

Several of SeaWorld’s captive dolphins have lived into their 30s, and the company highlighted 31 bottlenose dolphin births at SeaWorld San Diego since 1995.

They noted that the data are of limited value for analyzing performance of an institution like SeaWorld because, for instance, the park regularly takes in sick animals and tries to nurture them back to health.

An orca named Splash was sick when born at another facility, and SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz said the animal probably would not have lived long. The San Diego park agreed to provide long-term care and, Koontz said, “gave Splash an extra 13-plus years of life that he may not have had otherwise.”

He said Sumar died of a twisted intestinal tract.

“The cause of his death was in no way related to the fact he lived in a zoological environment,” said Koontz. “Prior to his death, Sumar was healthy and thriving.”

At the Association of Zoos & Aquariums in Silver Spring, Md., spokesman Steve Feldman said his group’s accreditation process provides the public with assurances that members such as SeaWorld San Diego are at the top of their field, based on a 66-page set of policies and standards for care.

As for regular comparative reviews of survival at marine mammal parks, “there is certainly not a requirement and perhaps not a need for this type of analysis,” he said.

Site inspections done by the USDA show no problems at SeaWorld San Diego in the past three assessments, dating back to 2007.

Agency spokesman Dave Sacks said inspectors look for signals that something is amiss at the places they monitor.

“What you are seeing with SeaWorld is not something that is shooting up red flags to our people,” Sacks said. “Animal deaths, just like human deaths, are part of the equation.”



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