Danajon Bank, three months after the earthquake

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes. Photo: ZSL

Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes. Photo: ZSL

Last weekend I visited some of our project sites hit by Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). This weekend I am visiting sites hit by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Bohol in October. 

As we land in Tubigon dock on Bohol I see the power of yet another of nature’s forces — this time a massive earthquake. I’ve entered a wonky, cracked, rubbly world, slowly being patched and filled. As we get a tricycle, I am stunned to see the municipal offices — the dominant building in central Tubigon — is torn apart by huge cracks on one side, while the other side has completely collapsed. I’ve had many meetings in those very offices with the mayor and officials and it’s normally bustling with activity so it feels all wrong to see it that way. Close by, the historic church and school are crumbled ruins, with the only consolation that it was a national holiday when the earthquake happened. Otherwise the casualties would have been so much higher.

We are heading to Matabao, the location of the marine protected area (MPA) we implemented as a result of Project Ocean — a wonderful and unlikely joint ZSL initiative with Selfridges department store. The road to Matabao is bumpier than before as sections have dropped and cracks have been temporarily filled. Tents line sections of the road and it’s great to see Shelterbox — a fantastic Cornish charity based near to where I live in the U.K. — have provided temporary housing to the most needy. There are houses that have completely collapsed, while others have spiderwebs of fresh concrete as people have made running repairs. Others look just fine, until you realise they are leaning at a rather unnatural angle and the tents in the garden confirm that these homes are no longer safe.

Snorkeling over cracks in sea floor. Photo: ZSL

Snorkeling over cracks in sea floor. Photo: ZSL

We drop our bags at the little hostel we stay at near the water. The doors to our rooms won’t open fully now because, thanks to the quake, the rooms themselves have shifted and dropped below the path outside! At the highest tides, they now flood (luckily not today!) and rebuilding has already started. This is nothing compared to the situation reports we hear from some of the outer islands. Batasan, which is home to another Project Seahorse-supported MPA, dropped about a metre during the quake. In fact, our team was there at the time with international volunteers conducting surveys and were lucky to live through that terrifying experience. Now, the island floods every high tide and up to a metre at the highest tides. A detailed assessment will be done by experts this week, but it seems that the most likely option is to relocate that entire community — practically and emotionally a very difficult task.

We hold a community meeting with the members of the MPA Management Council and discuss this year’s plans. The mayor, engineer, and municipal agricultural officer from Tubigon also attend the meeting. They share some great news as they are able to allocate a fuel allowance and boat maintenance costs for the new ‘Selfridges’ patrol boat. They are grateful to have additional enforcement power in the area and we agree to set a co-ordinated enforcement plan with the larger Seaborne Patrol vessel that runs day and night throughout Tubigon’s municipal waters. The village captain confirms that he too has allocated funds this year from his budget to support the running of the MPA, in spite of the earthquake and the fact they couldn’t spare any funds last year. It’s encouraging to see — as with the ZSL Philippines mangrove sites — that environmental protection remains a priority in these communities, even after experiencing such major calamities, and testament to our local team for helping instil those values.

The devastated municipal hall at Tubigon. Photo: ZSL

The devastated municipal hall at Tubigon. Photo: ZSL

We discuss the equipment they need and how to support that with the Selfridges’ MPA budget this year. Although I’m sure the fish wardens could do some damage with some Jimmy Choos and a designer handbag, we go for the slightly more practical option of binoculars, torches and mobile phones so they can communicate with the Seaborne Patrol!

The yellow patrol boat — painted in Selfridges’ statement colour — takes us out to the MPA after the tide comes in later that afternoon. The MPA guardhouse has adopted a jaunty angle after the ‘quake and the engineer has come up with a repair plan. I’m relieved we can get it operational again in the next month. As we pull up alongside it, we see very clearly why. There is a huge crack below the surface that snakes away from the guardhouse. These underwater cracks remain a real concern for the local fishers and who are very anxious, in many cases choosing not to fish in spite of the need for income and food. I put on my mask and snorkel and swim along the crack. It's really quite extraordinary to see the huge changes in the underwater topography. The crack is over five metres wide in places and ranges from a shallow drop to deep chasms. After a few hundred metres I find myself swimming over a drop-off, a steep wall with the sea disappearing below me. I only remember this area being a reef flat and seagrass bed and am confused. Back on the boat, Angie, our senior biologist, and the local fish warden confirms that there was no drop-off before.

Heather, Marisa, and village official in damaged MPA guardhouse. Photo: ZSL

Heather, Marisa, and village official in damaged MPA guardhouse. Photo: ZSL

Next week, the team start our bi-annual underwater surveys of our MPAs to establish their impact on improving fish and habitats. This time, we will also be working with Filipino scientists to document the physical changes resulting from the earthquake. The communities are desperate to find out how their MPA and surrounding fishing grounds have changed. And, of course, they want to know whether it’s safe to go out on the water.

Ironically, the earthquake seems to have reduced fishing pressure on these impacted reefs as most fishers did not go out for about a month after it hit. The earthquake has shown the importance of diversifying livelihoods, not just to take pressure off the oceans, but also to build resilience in these communities against such catastrophe. The ZSL-Interface Net-Works project seems to be doing just that, with net collection rates remaining consistent or even increasing in the months after the earthquake, indicating this initiative is able to provide valuable income at a time when there are so few other options. Never has there been a better time to emphasise that we need conservation for development if we are truly going to achieve a sustainable future.

For more Project Seahorse coverage of Typhoon Haiyan and last October's earthquake in Bohol Province, Philippines, click here and here

Dr. Heather Koldewey is Project Seahorse's Co-Founder and Field Conservation Manager, and Head of Global Programmes at the Zoological Society of London.