heather koldewey

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.

Conservation and calamities

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Damaged coconut trees.  Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

Damaged coconut trees. Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

I spend a lot of time writing grants. It’s a fundamental part of conservation work to have the funds to do it. I know how easy it is to slip into the jargon of grant writing, using buzzwords and phrases like ‘building resilience’, ‘improving food security’ and ‘securing ecosystem services for future generations’. The last few months have taught me that it’s not just the future we need to worry about, it’s the here and now. Last weekend I visited our project sites in northern Panay, Philippines, that were hit by Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda).

It’s quite extraordinary driving north through the centre of the island which looks completely undisturbed until you reach the area where the typhoon hit on 8 November 2013. From that point, the leaves of the coconut trees are bent to one side, like they are permanently trapped in the storm’s wrath. Shiny new tin roofs glint in the sunshine, blue tarpaulin is dominant, and mangled homes and buildings are everywhere. The sound of chainsaws and hammering rings out as people work to recover their homes and lives.

Devastated homes.  Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

Devastated homes. Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

Project Seahorse and ZSL-Philippines have, collectively, worked in the Central Philippines for over 20 years. The ZSL-Philippines team has been working with local communities for the last six to protect and restore their mangrove forests, well-known to be nature’s own mechanism for coastal protection. In the last 18 months, we’ve been expanding our marine protected areas (MPAs) to include mangroves, helping to connect vital habitats and increase coastal protection. We visit two of these partner communities – Buntod and Balaring – to deliver further aid, raised from donations through our website appeal following the disasters and from local donations. Having liaised closely with the local government and village officials, we’ve identified that these communities need building materials to reconstruct their homes and repair their boats.

There’s still no water supply, so the ZSL vehicle is piled high with containers so people can store water when the supply truck organised by the local government next comes through. We’ve also organised two trucks, one laden with 1,000 bamboo poles which will help reconstruct oyster farms washed away by the typhoon, rebuilding an important livelihood for these communities and the other carrying sheets of plywood and wriggly tin, plus nails and mastic.

Heather & wonderful old lady with jingle bells hat!  Photo: ZSL

Heather & wonderful old lady with jingle bells hat! Photo: ZSL

I’m shocked as we drive through these familiar places which have been devastated in a single day. I can hardly imagine as people tell me of the terror of trying to survive over five hours of winds of 315 km/hour. Every house in these two villages was damaged and most were completely destroyed. I am relieved to hear of the international response that brought in medical support for the first month and undoubtedly prevented major disease outbreaks. However, there is little help reaching these sites now.

In Buntod, Unicef is providing vitally important sanitation and clean water, but in Balaring it’s down to Project Seahorse, ZSL, and a few private donations. One wonderful old lady, wearing a jaunty bobble hat with ‘jingle bells’ written on it, tells me that her house completely collapsed but she is still living in it, crawling in to get some kind of shelter each night. She leaves ecstatic with sheets of plywood and tin to help her rebuild a better shelter. I feel totally inadequate and want to run after her and help her build it.

As always in the Philippines, we are met with warmth, smiles and laughter, but with terrible memories and so many daily worries, many have tears in their eyes as they share their stories. Incredibly, three of our staff; Jo, Gene and Rodney were the very first people to get to these communities after the typhoon, navigating fallen trees, electricity cables and debris. We were the first to get food and water packs to them too. And now we’re continuing to support them to rebuild as best we can. It was great to see the team keeping environmental sustainability at the core, even when there is a huge urge to help people in any way possible.

New home ready to go.  Photo: ZSL

New home ready to go. Photo: ZSL

For example, we are careful not to increase the capacity of the fishing boats and ensure the recipients of the help are part of the community groups we work with on mangroves and MPAs.

As I took a moment and walked away from the hubbub of the aid distribution, being carefully co-ordinated and documented by Rodney, I looked out to the sea. There, most of the mangroves that we’d planted with the community over the last six years still stood strong, even some of the youngest seedlings. And right in front of me, on the beach, were newly bagged mangroves ready to restart the community nursery. You don’t need to be a scientist to know the value of mangroves – these communities are prioritising restoring their forests as much as they are rebuilding their homes. So, I will write in the next grant that we will build resilience for coastal communities without worrying about jargon, because that’s exactly what we’re doing.

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.

The value of marine reserves: lessons from the Philippines

By Dr. Heather Koldewey


Watching Hugh’s Fish Fight last week felt very familiar as he shared his experience in the Philippines — I have just returned from a trip there myself.

I, too, have seen the devastating effects of dynamite fishing and the extreme pressures placed on the ocean by a population of 99 million people who depend on it for food. It’s not easy when you live below the poverty line, have a family to feed; and the ocean is no longer providing the supply that it used to in years gone by.

I have also been heartened seen the ever-expanding network of marine reserves across the Philippines. There, everyone has heard of them and knows that they are important and necessary. Nationally, over 1,000 exist and we have helped set up 34 marine reserves that are managed by local communities. The most recent one happened with support from Selfridges through our innovative Project Ocean partnership.

In the Philippines, marine reserves are widely accepted by communities as a simple solution to reduced catches. In the absence of a social security system or other options, I have seen first-hand how communities embrace marine reserves — often referring to them as ‘banks’ or ‘security’ for their future.


They realise that without setting aside areas of ocean, fish will have no place to live, grow and breed — and they are right. Our scientific surveys, that have monitored these reserves for over a decade, have shown that they do work, generating more fish and healthier habitats. Limitations in the Philippines are either funds or knowledge on how to go about setting up a marine reserve, not debate as to whether they should happen or not.

Coming home to the UK, I am struck by the contrast with the current process of establishing Marine Conservation Zones. After investing over £8 million and three years of stakeholder consultation to define 127 sites for MCZs, the government is currently only considering implementing 31 in the first stage. Not only does it now look like this figure will be further undermined – but it is also likely that some form of fishing will continue throughout all of the MCZs, bringing into question their effectiveness as protection areas.

It seems strange that this figure is overshadowed by the Philippine’s 34 marine reserves — fully protected areas — set up by one small organisation working with poor, local communities who have nothing but hope. We need to learn from their example. We need marine reserves in the UK to protect what’s left of our rich biodiversity and we need them now.

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

Chagos resets the baselines

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Photo: Bob Long

Photo: Bob Long

Dr. Heather Koldewey, co-Founder of Project Seahorse and Head of Global Programmes at the Zoological Society of London, writes about the creation of the Chagos Marine Reserve, the largest no-take marine protected area in the world. 

Chagos taught me that I didn’t know what the ocean should look like.

Through my job at the Zoological Society of London, I’m one of those very privileged people to have had the opportunity to travel the world, and have worked from Mozambique to the Philippines in community-based marine conservation efforts.

In the Philippines’ the areas I work are what can only be described as ‘trashed’ – blasted craters giving evidence of recent dynamite fishing, few tiny schooling fish, and if you’re lucky, the flick of a tail as a small grouper scoots into a rocky crevice. Here, marine protected areas (MPAs) are about securing some hope for the future for poor and hungry communities with ever-decreasing options. And MPAs do work, protecting and restoring the wonderful diversity of coral reefs, but also recovering fish populations. Fishers there are fully engaged with MPA management as they know the importance of such areas of ocean protection to secure their future, as well as that of the ocean, something I only wish was a more widely held view within UK fishing communities.

I knew Chagos was different. I’d seen the talks, read the articles, talked to the scientists, seen the data. I knew Chagos was special, hence my commitment and support for it becoming a no-take MPA and involvement in the Chagos Environment Network and Chagos Conservation Trust executive committee. But seeing it for real was quite another experience that a graph, a chart or even an image could simply not prepare me for.

Working closely with the legendary experience of Charles Sheppard and extraordinary expedition skills of Pete Raines, we were fortunate to pull together a world class team of scientists prioritising the immediate research needs that would best inform a Chagos MPA management plan. For the first time, an integral member of the team was a trainee scientist who also represented the Chagossian community, a hugely positive step and one of the many successes of the expedition.

But back to my knowledge gap. Once in the water, I was unprepared for the sheer abundance of fish, the size and age of fish, and particularly the behaviour of those fish. For many years, I was curator of ZSL London Zoo’s aquarium so I know what a gnarly old fish looks like and you just don’t see them in the wild. Chagos was full of them. I have never had so many different kinds of fish swim towards me out of sheer curiosity – including lots of huge grouper that hung in the water column, something I hadn’t seen before. To quote from Finding Nemo – ‘Fish are friends not food’ in Chagos. I could not believe the vast areas of stunning plate corals, any one of which would be a significant attraction in any dive site in the world. I experienced the sheer joy of seeing sharks on every dive – decimated in most of our oceans and in even in trouble in Chagos.

Most of all, I could not quite come to terms with what we have done almost everywhere else. Our oceans are in a desperate state and pressure from people is only increasing. Worringly, even those of us who are involved in ocean conservation are shifting our reference points, starting to consider mediocre, depleted reefs to be comparatively good. We have lost a sense of what our oceans should look like and could look like. Chagos was certainly the most beautiful place on Earth I have ever been to and being part of the expedition has further increased my resolve that this is a vital wilderness area of enormous significance that must be protected. And the graphs and charts say that too.

Originally published on the Marine Reserves Coalition Blog.

Project Ocean: From designer handbags to marine conservation

By Dr. Heather Koldewey


Even though I had been part of the planning process, walking up to Selfridges on the day of the launch of Project Ocean was a jaw-dropping experience. Situated on one of the busiest shopping streets in the world – Oxford Street in London — Selfridges is an iconic department store known for its trend-setting, high-end fashion. I found myself faced with a giant activist-style banner covering the front of the building with the message ‘No more fish in the sea?’The shop windows — each one a bold and thought-provoking tableau — were also attracting considerable attention, with people stopping and taking photos with their smartphones.

What made me grin was that the attention was focused not on a piece of jewellery, designer dress or expensive handbag, but on our oceans: All these windows creatively and simply presented marine conservation issues, translating ‘heavy’ topics that include bycatch and overfishing into striking statements: ‘Jellyfish and chips’ on offer from a van in one window, ‘Would you eat a panda?’ in another, with a bluefin tuna swimming next to a panda. And — hooray — ‘Save our seahorses’! Had we achieved our goal of making fish fashionable and marine conservation mainstream?

Project Ocean is a partnership between Selfridges and the Zoological Society of London, but it is a truly collaborative initiative involving Project Seahorse and 21 other conservation NGOs, as well as many artists, musicians, celebrities, chefs, fishers, industry representatives and more. Beyond the windows and facade, Project Ocean is about promoting the sustainable consumption of marine resources.

Selfridges has switched to sustainable seafood, produced a seafood guide and iPhone app, and is running fun and educational activities in its restaurants and foodhalls. We’ve been working with Fish2Fork (founded by Charles Clover from the ‘End of the Line’) to encourage all of the 148 cafes and restaurants along Oxford Street to become sustainable too — a marine protected area (MPA) in the heart of London!

As part of a series of launch events, Project Seahorse hosted a day of presentations and activities on May 25th. We introduced a brand-new short film about our work and I gave a series of talks throughout the day on the weird and wonderful world of seahorses. Guylian Belgian Chocolate, our longtime donor, provided free chocolate tastings and a series of prize draws. They certainly managed to pull shoppers away from the bucking bronco whale and the people walking around dressed in plankton-like balloon sculptures.

Our event proved a great way to reach new audiences. I fielded questions such as ‘What, seahorses are fish?’, ’Corals aren’t plants?’, ‘Why do people catch seahorses?’, and ‘Why can’t we have more protected areas in UK waters like they do in the Philippines?’. Good questions, all of them....

It was great to see so many people, including donors and supporters, collaborators and former team members, friends and family and people who had heard about us through Project Ocean. Not to mention people who just happened to be shopping there at the time: stunning seahorse imagery combined with yummy chocolates seemed to be a winning combination!

With financial support from Selfridges, the Project Seahorse Foundation (PSF) team in the Philippines has established a new MPA in Matabao near Tubigon, the 34th we have helped to implement in the region. Last week, PSF team member Angie Nellas did a live video link from the Philippines where shoppers at Selfridges were able to ask her questions about our work there. That evening, UK TV celebrity Kate Humble explained with passion her experience of our community-based MPA successes in the Philippines as part of the Thursday evening talks series.

Project Ocean is raising funds for more marine reserves, meaning more fish in the sea and a more positive response to that enormous and daunting slogan, ‘No fish in the sea?’ And hopefully we’ll have a whole new set of ambassadors — complete with designer suits, heels and handbags — for our oceans.

The Project Ocean launch runs until June 12th. For more information visit www.selfridges.com/projectocean

Dr. Heather Koldewey is Associate Director of Project Seahorse and Programme Manager, International Marine and Freshwater Conservation, at the Zoological Society of London.