Fishers’ Ecological Knowledge and Stable Isotope Analysis: A Social-Ecological Systems Approach to Endangered Species Conservation

Kathryn Rose Wedemeyer-Strombel, University of Texas at El Paso


Identifying developmental habitat is essential for understanding population structure and species resiliency, especially for critically endangered species. In long-lived, oceanic, migratory animals such as sea turtles, elucidating developmental grounds is particularly difficult. When data are deficient or challenging to acquire, scientists often lean towards traditional quantitative methods when a social-ecological systems approach could better provide crucial baseline data and guiding information. Fishers’ ecological knowledge (FEK), the combination of experiential and culturally transmitted knowledge, is expert knowledge and should be treated as such. In 2008, FEK led to the “rediscovery” of the critically endangered eastern Pacific (EP) population of hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), which nests within an unusual habitat: on the shores of mangrove estuaries. However, we did not know how extensively EP hawksbills use these mangrove estuary habitats throughout ontogeny. To answer this question, we use a social-ecological systems approach, illuminating FEK through participatory action research and informant-directed semi-structured interviews, and integrating FEK with stable isotope analysis. Together, this approach reveals that mangrove estuary habitat is crucial for the development of immature EP hawksbills. Further, this imperiled population exhibits a pelagic stage that puts them at risk to artisanal fisheries before recruiting into their estuarine developmental grounds–where some stay until adulthood. These findings will improve how we conserve this population, highlight the substantial impact social-ecological systems approaches have on conservation, and demonstrate how interdisciplinary studies can reveal data of a revolutionary nature.

Subject Area

Conservation biology|Communication|Biogeochemistry

Recommended Citation

Wedemeyer-Strombel, Kathryn Rose, "Fishers’ Ecological Knowledge and Stable Isotope Analysis: A Social-Ecological Systems Approach to Endangered Species Conservation" (2019). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI13881332.