Interdisciplinary innovation

Designers and biologists deal with Chile’s pesky sea lion problem

They’re cute, playful and tourists love them, but they can also be pushy and weigh up 770 pounds. So what is to be done with Valdivia’s sea lions?  

Monday, May 14, 2012 Category: Education - Enviroment
A giant sea lion edges up to Valdivia’s fish market. (Photo by Ryan Greenberg/Flickr) A giant sea lion edges up to Valdivia’s fish market. (Photo by Ryan Greenberg/Flickr)

One of the main attractions at Valdivia’s Feria Fluvial - the bustling, riverside fish market where the port’s fishing fleets unloads its bounty - are the enormous sea lions barking for attention and fish guts.


But while they may be playful and tourists love them, the constant attention has made these pesky sea lions even pushier and more assertive in their quest for a free seafood snack.


And given that the South American sea lion (Otaria flavescens) can grow to 9 feet (2.73 mt) and weigh 770 pounds (350 kg) , it’s not surprising that Chile’s famed beer-brewing city is starting to come up with strategies to keep the seals at a respectful distance.


What is surprising, however, is how Valdivia is going about coming up with those strategies.


After early attempts at traditional management techniques - like fenced areas - failed to keep the sea lions at bay, a team of local researchers began exploring some innovative interdisciplinary ideas.


The team brought together design students from some of Chile’s top universities to come up with new ideas to prevent human-sea lion conflicts.


They wanted aesthetically pleasing, long-term architecture and designs projects, grounded in biology, that would benefit the entire riparian community - seals and fishmongers alike.


After months of deliberation, the team selected seven proposals that they deemed both appropriate and feasible. Now, they are striking up a conversation with the local community and international academic circles to see which will be implemented, and how to go about it.


Among the finalists is a large-scale architectural project that wouldn’t just solve the market’s sea lion problem, but also add to its charm.


The idea is for a sea lion rest area between the footpath and riverbank, with smooth, curved walls that would keep animals separated. Shade during the day would attract the sea lions and keep them at a safe distance, and designated feeding stations would mean that visitors could still interact with the sea lions and rest areas.


A more immediate solution is the idea of a “fladry umbrella” - a brightly colored umbrella with ribbons, which sea lions would find unsettling. Armed with a fladry, visitors could wander freely among the sea lions, and shoo off any overbearing individuals.


The research has recently been published in the Journal of Coastal Conservation; to read it, click here.