Early on the morning of Christmas Day 2019, Typhoon Ursula (or Phanfone) passed through the Philippines with wind speeds of up to 175 km/h, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The Visayas, and the north of the Province of Cebu in particular, were among the most impacted landscapes and communities. But typhoon Ursula did not only leave its mark on infrastructures on land, its affects were also felt by seascapes throughout the region.
A rapid assessment of the damages of Ursula on coral reefs surrounding Malapascua was conducted in January and February 2020 on 18 sites around Malapascua, Campatoc Shoal (north-east of the island of Cebu), and Carnaza. The objectives of these surveys were (i) to assess the extent and intensity of damages on the reefs; (ii) determine which coral forms and genus were the most affected; and (iii) draw implications regarding the potential of the reefs to recover from the damages.
A total of 72 surveys were conducted by People and the Sea scientific divers to record the intensity and extent of coral damages, using a methodology based on the Reef Health and Impact Survey (RHIS) protocol developed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). Data on benthic cover, as well as coral growth forms and genus affected by the damages, were also recorded.
Observations showed evidences of typhoon damage on coral reefs up to 20 metres below the surface. The assessment results showed widespread damages on the shallow reefs surrounding Malapascua and Campatoc Shoal, and lowest damage levels around Carnaza, approximately 18km to the north. The level of destruction decreased with the depth, but was highly variable between reefs. Most shallow reefs displayed extensive damage to corals (especially branching, table and foliose growth forms), and the most affected sites also showed dislodgement of large coral colonies and structural damage to the reef framework, inducing an important decrease of coral cover and habitat complexity.
Recovery from such a strong natural disturbance is a slow process, with an estimated timeline of around ten years to get back to initial values of coral cover and biodiversity. Since the economy of Malapascua is heavily dependent on healthy reefs, both for tourism and fishing, it is necessary to maximise the resilience potential of coral reefs. Hence, it is particularly crucial to limit other human-induced coral stressors in order to allow reefs to heal from the damage inflicted by Ursula. Long-term monitoring should be continued to measure the recovery of the reefs and inform marine resource management. More than ever, a hand-in-hand collaboration is required between all stakeholders, from the community, tourism industry, government and science, to give the best possible chances to our coral reefs to recover.