The complicated relationship between humans and endangered sea lions in the Galápagos

On San Cristóbal Island, mammals and people share the land they live on and the fish they eat. To ease the tension, researchers sought the public’s input on and participation in a new kind of community science project.

On the small island of San Cristóbal in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 8,000 people and 4,000 endemic Galápagos Sea Lions coexist. For decades, the groups lived together peacefully, but starting in the 1970s, tourism to the Galápagos increased, causing local populations to boom to meet the new demand and putting pressure on the ever-scarce land.

Today, the relationship between the humans and these marine mammals is complicated. The sea lions hold a special place in their culture, as a de facto mascot and some of the first wildlife visitors encounter. They’re also endangered, with populations having dropped nearly 65 percent in about four decades, so Galapagueños feel protective. But the sea lions eat fish, primarily, and those same fish provide one of the main livelihoods for the people of San Cristóbal. In addition, the sea lions are increasingly encroaching on the 100 square miles of land not designated as National Park—the only place in the Galápagos where people can legally live.

“The community competes with the sea lions for food, for space on the beach, for space on fishermen’s boats,” says Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in Penn’s Psychology department. “Sea lions like to haul out at night and sleep on flat areas, so now they’re sleeping on boats. Fishermen are putting up barbed wire so the sea lions can’t get to them. That’s where most of the active tension lies.”

D. Weisberg, along with Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Philosophy department, and a team from Penn, have been conducting research in the Galápagos for several years, laying the groundwork for a project that takes an innovative approach to science and immerses high school students so completely that they will eventually become the global subject-matter experts.

Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in Penn’s Psychology department

“The impression in the Galápagos is that science is an extractive resource, like oil,” says D. Weisberg.

“We hope to reverse this idea that science is just taking out and never giving back,” adds M. Weisberg. “We wanted to do something at the intersection of education, science, and conservation, and the idea to study urbanization effects on sea lions came from the community.”

With the seed of an idea germinating and backed by funding from the School of Arts and Sciences’ “Making a Difference in Diverse Communities” initiative and Penn Global, the researchers began refining their plans. Knowing they wanted to incorporate high school students on the island, they needed a project that was accessible and straightforward, that included observational studies easily taught to non-scientists and that could be conducted without much complication once the University’s team left.

Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Philosophy department

Around this same time, what’s become known as the “fireworks incident” took place on San Cristóbal. Picture how dogs often react to fireworks, startled by the noise and hiding until it subsides. Now replace the canines with 500-pound sea lions and envision the normally lumbering creatures barreling toward the water.

“For a community-wide celebration, the municipality that runs the town launched a lot of fireworks. It was a popular initiative with many of the people,” says Karen Kovaka, a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh who completed her Ph.D. at Penn in May 2017. “But there are many videos of the sea lions hearing the noises and seeing the fireworks light up the sky, then stampeding en masse into the ocean. They were really stressed out.”

Some naturalist guides, knowing how the animals might respond, had tried unsuccessfully to prevent the display. M. Weisberg and D. Weisberg saw an opportunity to change future situations, by making community members themselves—rather than the naturalist guides or outsider academics, for example—the real authority on these animals. Perhaps, their thinking went, next time something similar arose, the high school students could step in and make a true difference.

As part of an initial group of Galápagos high-school student participants, 11th grader Grace Pesantes observed the sea lion colony on San Cristóbal for 15 to 20 minutes, twice a week. The project takes an innovative approach to this kind of work, engaging community members and giving them ownership over the science.

That backdrop led to the three-tiered project that exists today. Tier one involves learning about the sea lions and their behavior through repeated observation. In tier two, the Penn team is studying how participating in such a project affects the high school students and, to a lesser extent, their families. Tier three looks broadly at this as a model for doing meaningful science in which scientists collaborate with and rely on the community where the research takes place.

Tenth and 11th graders collected hundreds of data points about the sea lions, including their age and sex, as well as whether they were alone or within a body length of at least one other animal.

Kovaka and Justin Walsh, a fourth-year biology Ph.D. student at Penn, designed the protocol for tier one. Two days a week, for 30 minutes at each of three different sites, 11 high school students count sea lions, record their age and sex, record the number of sea lions within one body length of another, then spend 15 to 20 minutes observing the colony. They also measure the animals’ behavior through a method called a 2-meter assay, which has them approaching each animal slowly, then stopping at either 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) or when the sea lion reacts, whichever happens first.

“Across the sites there are varying levels of human disturbance; some are highly disturbed and some are set away from town in less-disturbed areas,” Walsh says. “We hope to show that there are differences in their behavior, in how they interact with humans and also with other sea lions.”  

Tier one began in June 2017, when M. Weisberg and D. Weisberg accompanied Kovaka, Walsh, and four Penn undergraduates to the Galápagos to train the high school participants. The undergrads remained on the island for two months to ensure the local students felt comfortable with the process. The idea is to have the Galapagueños continue collecting data—on their own, for the most part, with support from the Penn team when needed. The initial student cohort finished this past December and a new one starts this spring.

The first cohort of Galapagueños completed its participation in December 2017. Penn student Maddie Tilyou (bottom left), now a junior, along with Kelly Kennedy, C’17, (top left) and Carla Hoge, C’17 (top right), spent two months training the high-schoolers at the project’s outset.

Tier two began at the project’s outset as well, with an initial questionnaire asking students about their notions of science and conservation. That will be repeated at the end of each cohort’s participation in the project, and in between, D. Weisberg has been conducting qualitative interviews and getting first-person reflections from participants.

“What we want to find out, broadly, is whether taking part in this project has changed their understanding of how science works, what it means to do science, and how knowledge is created through the scientific practice, as well as whether it has changed their attitudes about conservation,” she says. “We’re also trying to see whether this has a kind of ripple effect in the community.”

The third tier, reflecting philosophically on the project and ways it can inform epistemology and scientific ethics, will happen down the road. Part of the challenge in extrapolating from this case study is the fact that the Galápagos is so unique, not only as a place where animals like the sea lions evolved without land-based predators, but also because of its politics, M. Weisberg says.

We hope to reverse this idea that science is just taking out and never giving back. We wanted to do something at the intersection of education, science, and conservation, and the idea to study urbanization effects on sea lions came from the community. Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Philosophy department

“There are many constituencies: the regional government, the national government of Ecuador, the municipal government, the Park Service, the fishermen, the guides, the local population who are none of these things, then NGOs like the Charles Darwin Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund,” he says. “It took a long time to develop trust in the Galápagos community, and part of that was actually helping them understand that we really are approaching this differently, we really are interested in their students and having them succeed.”

That doesn’t mean that broad-stroke lessons won’t be learned, he stresses. Kelly Kennedy, a May 2017 Penn graduate who, as an undergrad, traveled to the Galápagos to train the high schoolers, points out that the project is constantly evolving.

“It’s really exciting that we have some questions, we have some ideas, and in the future months, we’ll be able to see where our answers take us, where our findings take us, and what kind of questions we still have,” she says.  

Overall, the project isn’t aiming to prevent the tension altogether; that’s likely not possible given the ever-increasing pressures from tourism and the fact that land available for people to live probably won’t get any larger. Rather, it’s to help those who live around the sea lions permanently, the people who call the Galápagos home, to better understand the animals and to provide a gentle nudge in the direction of protecting this uniquely vulnerable environment.

Photo at top: The Penn project takes a three-tiered approach: The first involves learning about the behavior of the sea lions. The second studies how the project affects the high-school participants and their families. The third, which will come later, looks at this as a model to meaningfully incorporate the community where research is taking place.