Marine biologist-athlete rallies locals to save Davao Gulf’s ecosystem

by | Feb 25, 2019 | News

(From Business Mirror, By Henrylito Tacio, March 14, 2018)

Last updated on March 14th, 2018 at 07:33 pm

Story & photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

MOST Filipino sports lovers who follow the Philippine Volcanoes are familiar with center-winger Harry D. Morris.

Other than his duties with the national rugby team, Morris is actually a full-fledged marine biologist.  He was a 2006 honor graduate from the University of Essex in England with a degree in marine and freshwater biology.

In Photo: Philippine Volcanoes member and marine biologist Harry D. Morris

“I have yet to finish my PhD as I focused on my athletic career for more than 11 years now,” he said. “But I will definitely complete it once my projects are up and running.”

As a marine biologist, he is closely involved with the Trinity Project of the Hijo Resources Corp. in Tagum City, Davao del Norte. The company’s 177-hectare banana plantation, 92-hectare coconut plantation and 60-hectare forest face Davao Gulf,  which is one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the planet, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Davao Gulf may look stunningly picturesque to a nonlocal, but it is actually in deep trouble.

“I could see that its coastline [where Hijo’s beach resort is] is in a state of decline for a long time,” Morris observed. “The sediment has buried everything and has become too dynamic to allow seagrass to take root. The coastline area has retreated by over 100 meters, with a loss of 20 hectares or more over the last decade.”

The century-old forest, where hundreds of wild pigs and Philippine monkeys roam freely around the area, is also being threatened.

Coral reefs in a declining state, which Morris is trying to save.

“The sea is beginning to intrude into the rain forest. Even though the waters show superb clarity during calm days, any windy period would cause visibility to drop,” the marine biologist reported.

Three-pronged solution

THE Trinity Project started in November 2016. Initially, it covered only 200 square meters of the area near the corporation’s beach resort.

Today, it has expanded to 120 hectares: 20 hectares of mangrove forest, 80 hectares of seagrass meadows and 20 hectares of coral reef habitat.

“After this 4-kilometer coastline area is completed,” he pointed out, “I will expand the project to neighboring coastline areas.”

But that’s actually going ahead of the story. How is he planning to accomplish it?

“First, we will rehabilitate the damaged coastline,” he declared. “Then, we will improve the biological diversity that inhabits the gulf.”

Mangroves are essential to fish survival, according to Morris

Morris believes that by rehabilitating the Davao Gulf coastline, all three ecosystems—mangrove forest, seagrass meadows and coral reefs—could again do their original functions.

The restored coral-reef structures will help break and disrupt wave energy below the surface. The seagrass meadow, on the other hand, will buffer the wave energy against the sediment and slow down the movement of the water.

Finally, the mangroves will dissipate the wave energy with their propped roots, pneumatophores and trunks before the waves reach the shore.

Marine ecosystem

UNLIKE seaweeds,  seagrasses  are vascular plants. They have a network of veins to move nutrients and dissolved gases around the plant.

“The seagrass meadow will not only produce hundreds of thousands of liters of oxygen daily; it will also provide a habitat for spawning fish [including] their young, as well as crustaceans, mollusks and sea cucumbers,” Morris explained.

He further stated that, “Their roots and rhizomes will bind the sand and mud, improve the clarity of the water, as well as encourage accretion rates of sediments that will benefit any nearby corals, aside from building and maintaining beaches.”

On the other hand, mangroves  are very important to marine life.

“Mangrove forests strengthen the survival rate of fish during their developmental periods, allowing higher numbers of fish to reach sexual maturity and spawn higher numbers. Crustacean populations will boom and attract larger predators to the site. [Thus, they will] play an important role in the breakdown of organic material, being occasional detritus feeders.”

Finally, the coral reefs,  which the World Conservation Union describes as “essential life-support systems,” are actually necessary for human survival.

“The coral reefs are the optimum environment in the tropical coastal ecosystem, allowing a huge diversity of aquatic life to live and breed in,” Morris pointed out.

‘Trinity’ and the Coral Triangle

“THE Trinity Project is actually my design and creation, in partnership with a select few people who possess the same mind-set,” Morris revealed. “I have always wanted to make a real difference in what I do and I strongly believe that this project can flourish and last for generations, long after any of our lifetimes.”

Morris foresees that the restored coastal ecosystems comprised of mangrove forests, sea grass meadows and coral reefs  will continuously become stronger and more stable.

“I believe this can be perfected and replicated all over the Philippines,” he opined, and added that it will not only benefit the Philippines but also other areas within the Coral Triangle.

So named because of its distinct shape, the Coral Triangle is a region in the Western Pacific marine area that includes the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Not far from Hijo’s Banana Beach, Morris has placed 20 artificial reefs—or    “bommies”—which were constructed from recyclable scrap metal and porous stones.

“By the end  of March this year, we will allow our guests to have a snorkeling experience underwater using a long-hose scuba system,” Morris intimated. “There is no certification needed, and the guests can walk on the seabed among the reef structures at a depth of less than 5 meters. They can interact with the fish and sea life there, while experiencing firsthand how the Trinity project is developing.”

This author echoes Morris’s sentiments that Davao Gulf needs to be restored to its former state. After all, it is Southern Mindanao’s fishing ground.

The Davao Gulf Management Council, which is composed of all local government units surrounding the gulf, is one in declaring that the body of water “is a critical resource supporting the economies of six coastal cities and 18 coastal municipalities.”

Philippine roots

IN an exclusive interview, the national athlete-cum-marine biologist shared that her mother is a Filipina, the former Pilar Dionson.

“Her family had a rice-milling business and a store, [since my grandfather] was also a farmer,” Morris revealed.

His father is Toby, a British national. “He is a farmer in the United Kingdom but was working as an oceanic surveyor when he met my mom, who was then studying,” Morris said.

Their union was blessed with five children, with Morris being the eldest. He has a brother who is also a rugby player and a graduate in Sports Science, as well as three other sisters. All of them are based in the UK.

Morris was born in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental, but he grew up in the UK. “I flew back and forth a lot when I was still young,” he told this author, “but at age 6, I settled in Wales to start school.”

He eventually took up marine biology and, a few years after, found his way back to our shores where he has played under our flag for the Volcanoes.

More important, Morris is now wearing the hat of a marine ecology-hero who is saving the delicate waters in the southern part of the Philippines.