Starfish Encounters: Endangerment Ethnography in Boca del Drago, Panama




Saroni, Allison Nicole Koch

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This dissertation aims to advance the anthropological understanding of endangerment. I trace narratives of endangerment about starfish (Oreaster reticulatus) emerging from the context of Starfish Beach in Boca del Drago, Panama. Starfish are the main tourist attraction at Starfish Beach and the center of economic activity. There are conflicting narratives about the starfish: some people attest the starfish are endangered and mourn their loss; others maintain starfish populations are not endangered. The starfish population is an ostensibly ecological phenomenon, but starfish endangerment is not merely an ecological concern that can be examined within the bounds of physical sciences. I use the concept of endangerment as a theoretical framework to make sense of the competing narratives about starfish, demonstrating endangerment is a social and cultural phenomenon that anthropologists are uniquely poised to investigate. Accordingly, I implemented an ethnographic approach to interview and observe a diverse group of people living and visiting Boca del Drago: Panamanian residents and tourism vendors, United States and Canadian scientists, international and domestic tourists, and North American and European expatriate residents. Starfish are protagonists (Tsing 2015) in the endangerment narratives. Starfish are a means to understanding how a nonhuman species assembles with human lives—as well as with tourism, conservation, science, and other non-human beings such as forests—through endangerment narratives (or the lack thereof). Through ethnographic inquiry and an anthropological approach, this dissertation examines complex human-nature relationships and feelings of loss, or conversely, feelings that nothing has been lost.


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Conservation, Ecological narratives, Endangered species, Endangerment, Panama, Tourism