On Conservation
The Project Seahorse Blog

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On Conservation is a regularly updated mix of field notes, expert commentary, and miscellanea about marine conservation by the Project Seahorse team. 

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Systematic approaches to site selection for marine protected areas (MPAs) are often favored over opportunistic approaches as a means to meet conservation objectives efficiently. In this study, we...

Posted by Dr. Heather Koldewey
20 Feb 2014
Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes. Photo: ZSL

Last weekend I visited some 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

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

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

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.

Posted by Dr. Heather Koldewey
18 Feb 2014
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

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

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

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.

Posted by Kyle Gillespie
24 Jan 2014
Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse
Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

Something exciting happens when the sun goes down in the central Philippines. I'm not talking about the karaoke bars or the evening basketball games. Shortly after dusk, the reefs become flooded with fantastic and exotic creatures. It starts as a trickle.

As the last rays of sunshine disappear below the horizon a few crabs scurry from out of crevices. The trickle quickly becomes a torrent as basket stars unfurl their arms, snails with shells the size of grapefruit begin to hunt, and squid and octopus dance past flashing brilliant colours and patterns. The parade of creatures lasts until dawn and this past summer I had front rows seats here in at the epicentre of ocean biodiversity.

It's hard to believe that fish represent only about 5% of all the animals on coral reefs while an astonishing 95% of reef biodiversity is made up of spineless creatures, or invertebrates. And they are absolutely fascinating: Cuttlefish are intelligent, vicious hunters; decorator crabs wear elaborate costumes and tube worms use intricate, umbrella-like structures to filter food from the water. In many regions of the Philippines they make up a quarter to a half of fisher catch, sold to local and distant markets or consumed as important protein source for fishers and their families. 

Photo: Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse
Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

In spite of their importance to humans, invertebrates are nearly always overlooked in marine ecological and conservation science. We do know that they are vitally important for the proper functioning of marine ecosystems, but when it comes to how they structure our oceans and how we can best conserve them, there are many more questions than there are answers. 

As a graduate student with Project Seahorse, I’m trying to answer some of these questions so we can better tailor our conservation programmes to the reality of marine ecosystems and the fisheries that depend on them. Only by taking a holistic approach, one that takes invertebrates as well as fish into account, can we develop truly effective conservation solutions to some of conservation’s most intractable problems.

In 2013, for the fieldwork component of my research, I traveled from Vancouver to Danajon Bank in the central Philippines where Project Seahorse has worked for the past two decades. If you’ve been following our work, you might already know that this 130-km double-barrier reef off the north coast of Bohol Province is considered by scientists to be the cradle of marine biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean. Many species found all over the Pacific are thought to have first evolved here. During our time here, Project Seahorse has helped establish 35 community-run marine protected areas (MPAs) on Danajon Bank. 

Photo: Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse
Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

For four months I dived every night inside and outside of these MPAs, spoke with fishers about the importance of invertebrates to their livelihoods, and assessed how well managed and enforced the reserves are. During my field season, I was able to see many different and fascinating creatures, and spend time with some of the warmest people I have ever met.

Over the next few months I’ll be blogging in this space about some of these incredible invertebrates, their roles in marine ecosystems, and their importance to small fishing communities. Stay tuned!

Posted by Tyler Stiem
5 Dec 2013

Though the story of Typhoon Haiyan (and the October earthquake) is beginning to cycle out of the news, the relief and recovery effort is still very much under way. Many villages in Bantayan, Panay, and Danajon Bank continue to face acute shortages of food, shelter, and other basic necessities. Our team in the field continues to be amazed by the resilience and optimism of these communities. Below are portraits of hope photographed by Steve de Neef.

If you can spare a few dollars, please consider donating to ZSL's relief and recovery fund. Your support is still needed and appreciated!

Photo: Steve de Neef
A local Madridejos women and her baby stand in front of her destroyed house after Typhoon Yolanda passed over the island.
Photo: Steve de Neef
Kids posing and playing in Madridejos, an area hit very hard by Typhoon Yolanda.
Photo: Steve de Neef
A pair of boys fly kites amid the ruins of Madridejos.
Photo: Steve de Neef
Smiles from a pair of boys.
Photo: Steve de Neef
ZSL and Project Seahorse relief operation in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island.
Photo: Steve de Neef
A woman posing in from of her house that was destroyed by Tyhpoon Yolanda.
Photo: Steve de Neef
Mother and child at one of the relief centres.
Posted by Regina Bestbier
28 Nov 2013

Our relief efforts continue in the devastated communities in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank where no other external help is available. To date we've reached eleven communities, delivering emergency packs and other assistance to 1,600 households.  This past week we delivered rice, canned fish and drinking water to four communities in Panay (ZSL mangrove conservation project sites) that lost 75% - 100% of their homes.

Here are some images taken during a two-day relief operation to Bantayan and Hilantagaan Island in Cebu.  All photos taken by Steve de Neef.

Typhoon Yolanda affected many fishermen in the Visayas. On the way from Hagnaya to Bantayan there where a lot of damaged and some sunken boats. Photo by Steve de Neef

 People on Bantayan Island are collating anything they can to rebuild their lives after Typhoon Yolanda's wrath. Photo by Steve de Neef

 People gathering around the ZSL/Project Seahorse relief truck in Bantayan Island. Photo by Steve de Neef

 Relief goods being offloaded and distributed in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island to victims of Typhoon Yolanda. Photo by Steve de Neef

People waiting in line in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan to receive relief goods. This can take hours. Photo by Steve de Neef

 Distributing emergency supplies in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan. Photo by Steve de Neef


Hope.  Photo by Steve de Neef

Posted by Tyler Stiem
21 Nov 2013

As mentioned previously on this blog, one of the areas that has been mostly overlooked in the post-Haiyan relief effort is Danajon Bank in northern Bohol Province, Philippines. Last month the area was badly damaged by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that destroyed over 2,000 houses and left many thousands of people homeless. 

Since then, this rare and threatened double-barrier reef and many of coastal and island communities that depend on it for food and livelihoods have been further affected by aftershocks as high as 5.1 on the Richter scale (over 3,000 so far) — as well as by the typhoon itself. 

This week, ZSL and Project Seahorse delivered emergency aid to 1,250 households in seven different towns and villages in the area. These are communities near and dear to our hearts, communities we have collaborated with on conservation programs for many years. 

Our local staff report that people are doing as well as can be expected. Thanks to the hard work of local People’s Organizations and other community-based groups, the emergency packs consisting of food, clean water, hygiene products, and essential medicines are quickly reaching the neediest people. 

Here are a few images from this latest two-day operation:

Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Food and other emergency supplies arrive by outrigger boats and by truck to remote Danajon Bank communities. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Volunteers unload the supplies. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

People wait patiently to receive emergency relief packs containing clean water, food, hygiene products, and essential medicine. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse.

Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Registering for emergency relief assistance. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A woman opens one of the packs for her young child. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Smiling faces. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Members of a local Peoples’ Organization (PO) pose for a team photo. PO’s are an essential part of relief operations, often drawing their volunteers from the affected communities. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

The ZSL/Project Seahorse pause for a photo during long day of relief work. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Posted by Tyler Stiem
19 Nov 2013

In between updates on the relief effort underway in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank, we'll be posting portraits of the amazing, resilient communities in these areas. Today we bring you a few scenes from Bantayan Island in central Philippines. As always, if you'd like to help out, visit our JustGiving page

Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
A father and his four sons sit outside their storm-damaged house. Bantayan Town. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
 Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
A pair of boys transport rebuilding materials by bike through their village. Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
 Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
A sign of hope if there ever was one: A pair of boys fly homemade kites over what's left of their village. Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
 Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
A woman sits in front of the ruins of a house in Bantayan Town. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
 Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
The long rebuilding process begins. Photo Chai Apale/Project Seahorse
Posted by Dr. Amanda Vincent
14 Nov 2013

Over the past few days, ZSL and Project Seahorse staff have begun delivering emergency aid to communities in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank, three areas where no other external help is available. Because of our strong ties with the local communities — about 40 towns and villages in all, with a total population of 60,000 people —  our team is able to provide aid and logistical support quickly and effectively. 

Yesterday we delivered rice and canned fish to a community in Panay that has lost 75% of its houses. Today we are sending off the first set of 2,000 relief packs to coastal communities in Danajon Bank. All aid is delivered by our local team, of whom about half are social workers. We co-ordinate with local government and work through community organizations wherever possible (many of which we have collaborated with on our marine conservation work).

The situation remains difficult. Most of the storm debris have not yet been cleared, and in Danajon Bank and across Bohol province there have been 3,000 aftershocks (some as high as 5.1 magnitude) since last month’s earthquake. There is much work to be done. 

If you’d like to help, please consider donating to ZSL’s relief and recovery fund. The funds will go towards emergency relief and the longer-term recovery process. 

Photo courtesy ZSL
Field staff hand out relief packs to villagers. The packs contain food, clean water, soap, and essential medicines. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

Photo courtesy ZSL
 Registration for post-storm disaster relief assistance. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

Photo courtesy ZSL
 Staff prepare the emergency relief packs. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

Photo courtesy ZSL
 A barangay captain (village head) helps with the relief effort. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

Photo: Chai Apale/PSF
Signs of hope: Amid all of the destruction, life goes on. Boys play pickup basketball outside a village. Panay, Philippines. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse