“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 8, 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 their banca (their traditional Filipino fishing boat), but they were happy to escape alive.

What they didn’t expect was that the typhoon would still be impacting their livelihoods months after it struck.’

Haiyan’s hidden cost

Apart from the major destruction this super typhoon caused on land there was also 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 in the typhoon. In some areas, reefs were completely reduced to rubble and all the fish were gone. A healthy coral reef can produce upwards of 15 tonnes of fish per year; a damaged reef on the other hand might only produce five tonnes or less. It’s easy to see that for a country like the Philippines the health of coral reefs is critical to many people’s livelihoods.

In the months following the typhoon, the affected fishing population started noticing that their local catch was decreasing and, in some cases, they had to go further and further afield to catch anything at all. Humanitarian organisations came to help by rebuilding homes and boats, but 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 while providing fishermen with new boats would allow them to go fishing immediately, in the long-term their livelihoods still wouldn’t be secure.

Scientist Emelinda Abian and her assistant study the health of a coral reef near Concepcion one year after Typhoon Haiyan destroyed many reefs in this area.

Scientist Emelinda Abian and her assistant study the health of a coral reef near Concepcion one year after Typhoon Haiyan destroyed many reefs in this area © Steve De Neef

Bringing back the fish

Concern Worldwide, an NGO (nongovernmental organisation) that focuses on humanitarian aid, started to work with the local government of Concepcion, the region of which Polopina Island is a part. Together they came up with the idea of establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) to increase fish stocks and starting a coral reef rehabilitation project, in addition to their other humanitarian projects. When an area of productive coral reef is protected, local fishermen will benefit from the overspill of fish. As long as the MPA is left alone it will continue to produce fish. Results can take some time, even years, but in the long run it’s a win-win situation.

Restoring coral reefs is no easy feat. Concern Worldwide started by training local fishermen how to dive and help scientists in their rehabilitation efforts and to understand the importance of a healthy coral reef. The first step was collecting live fragments of coral that were broken off in the typhoon. These fragments would then be placed on an underwater floating structure in the MPA to allow them to grow.

Concern Worldwide also built jackstones (stones consisting of six prongs), which were then placed in the MPA to serve a dual purpose. Firstly, they prevent fishermen illegally fishing the area, as nets get caught and damaged by these stones. Secondly, their complex structures also provide shelter for fish in much the same way as a coral reef does. When the coral fragments reach an appropriate size, they are then attached to the jackstone structures to once again create a thriving reef that attracts fish and increases fish stocks, which, in turn, help sustain the livelihood of the local fishermen.

Natural resilience

Another aspect of Concern Worldwide’s work was the rehabilitation of the mangroves. This critical habitat is often overlooked but provides protection from coastal erosion and can even mitigate some of the damage wreaked by storms like Haiyan; it is a true buffer between ocean and land. Mangroves are also important breeding and nursing grounds for many marine species.

It is very encouraging to see NGOs taking steps to not only help the victims of these extreme weather events in the short term, but also looking at building long-term resiliency. Without coral reefs or other critical habitats such as mangroves, coastal communities are increasingly vulnerable to storms like Haiyan. Investing in our natural resources has never been more important; if we take care of Nature, it will take care of us.

For more information about Concern Worldwide’s work visit www.concern.net

This article featured in Scuba Diver OCEAN PLANET (Issue 2/2015)