By Steve De Neef
Dead staghorn coral and a small anemone is all that remains of this reef one year after Typhoon Haiyan. The fish are still around but without a healthy reef to support them fish stocks are likely to drop which would be another disaster for local fishermen.
“I’m not sure where they went, maybe they got scared by the typhoon just as we did….”. Those were the words of Nolito Dela Cruz, a fisherman from Polopina Island in the Philippines. He wasn’t referring to his relatives or friends but to the fish he used to catch right in front of his island. Typhoon Haiyan hit Polopina hard on November 8th, 2013. Haiyan devastated the island and went down as the strongest typhoon to ever make landfall anywhere in the world. Nolito and his family lost their house, possessions and banca, a traditional Filipino fishing boat, but they were happy to escape alive. What they didn’t expect was that the typhoon would also alter their livelihood months after it passed by.
Apart from the major destruction this super typhoon caused on land there was significant damage to a resource that millions of people rely on. Fish is one of the main sources of protein for many Filipino families and the coral reefs that fish stocks rely on took a big hit during the typhoon. In some areas the coral reefs were completely turned into rubble and the fish was gone. A healthy coral reef can produce upwards of 15 tons of fish per year, a damaged reef on the other hand might only produce 5 tons or less. It’s easy to see that for a country like the Philippines, coral reef health is a critical to many peoples’ livelihoods.
Jonel Meranar, a fisherman from Concepcion, Philippines collects his fish cages made to catch crabs. During typhoon Haiyan Jonel lost his house and boat and with that his livelihood. Luckily he got a temporary job at Concern Worldwide's boatyard to build boats for fishermen who had lost theirs just like he did. Jonel also received a boat himself and is now continuing his work just like before the typhoon.
In the months following the typhoon the affected fishermen population started noticing that their local fish catch was going down and in some cases they had to go further and further to catch anything at all. As many humanitarian organizations came to help the Filipino fishermen by rebuilding homes and boats, some took it one step further and looked at what could be done to ensure more long-term stability for their livelihoods. It became clear that providing fishermen with new boats would allow them to go fishing immediately, but in the long-term their livelihood still wouldn’t be secure. Concern Worldwide, an NGO that focuses on humanitarian, aid started to work with the local government of Concepcion of which Polopina Island is a part. Together they came up with the idea to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) to increase fish stocks and start a coral reef rehabilitation project on top of all their other humanitarian work. When an area of a productive coral reef is protected, the local fishermen can profit from the overspill of fish. As long as the MPA is left alone it will produce fish; it can take some time but in the long run it’s a win-win situation.
Two volunteer divers trained by Concern Worldwide participate in installing coral fragments on jackstones on a destroyed reef near Concepcion. The reefs here were heavily damaged by Typhoon Haiyan and local fishermen depend on healthy reef systems for their survival. Trying to rehabilitate the coral reefs is essential to maintain healthy fish stocks for future generations.
Restoring coral reefs is no easy feat and it can take years to see any real improvement. Concern Worldwide started with training local fishermen how to dive and help scientists in their rehabilitation efforts and understand the importance of a healthy coral reef. The first step was collecting live fragments of coral that were broken off due to the typhoon. These fragments would then be placed on an underwater floating structure in a MPA to allow them to grow. Jackstones (stones consisting of six prongs) were also built and placed underwater in the MPA. They serve a double purpose. Firstly, they can help curb illegal fishing because the fishermen’s nets get caught on them, and secondly, their complex structure provides shelter for fish just as a coral reef does.
When the coral fragments reach an appropriate size they would then be attached to the jackstone structures to once again create a thriving reef that attracts fish and increases fish stocks to help sustain the livelihoods of the many local fishermen.
It’s great to see NGOs taking steps to not only help the victims of these extreme weather events in the short term but also look more at building long-term resiliency. Without coral reefs coastal communities won’t have any protection from storms. Investing in our natural resources has never been more important. If we can take care of nature, it will take care of us.
Not all coral reefs were destroyed after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. This reef was spared and continues to thrive. Healthy reef systems like this are important breeding grounds for fish. This particular area is now a marine protected area so no fishing is allowed. As fish can breed here without disturbance the reef can be very productive and an overspill of fish from this sanctuary can provide local fishermen with a good, sustainable catch elsewhere.