Harry Morris: Davao Reef Saviour

As a Filipino national-level rugby player, Harry D. Morris is known by many for his skill on the sports field. But Morris is a marine biologist, passionate about preserving Davao Gulf, one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world. By Henrylito D. Tacio.

 Harry D. Morris is a brilliant rugby player - but he is just as passionate about the Davao Bay coastline. Photo by Henrylito D. Tacio

Harry D. Morris is a brilliant rugby player - but he is just as passionate about the Davao Bay coastline. Photo by Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao, Philippines, 17 October 2018. Harry Morris’s father is a British national named Toby Morris.  “He is a farmer in United Kingdom but was working as a oceanic surveyor when he met my mom, who was then studying,” Morris says. His mother is a Filipina, the former Pilar Dionson.  “My mother’s family had a rice milling business and a store, and her father was also a farmer,” Morris says.

Morris was born in Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental Province, but he grew up in the UK.  Now settled in the Philippines working as a marine biologist, he is involved with the Hijo-sponsored Trinity Project bordering the Davao Gulf. He describes the Gulf as “looking stunning on the surface but actually in deep trouble.”

This background in agriculture, and a love for the land pointed Morris towards studying for an honours degree in marine and freshwater biology at the University of Essex in England, back in 2006. He is still studying: “I still have yet to complete my PhD as I focused on my athletic career for the last 11 years,” he admits.  “But I will definitely be completing it.”

Trinity Project

The Trinity Project started in November 2016.  Today, it has expanded to 120 hectares: 20 hectares of mangrove forest, 80 hectares of seagrass meadows and 20 hectares of coral reef habitat.

“The coastline (here) has been in a state of decline for a long time,” Morris observes.  “The sediment has buried everything and has been too dynamic to allow seagrasses to take root. As well, the coastline area has retreated by over 100 meters with a loss of 20ha or more over the last decade."

 Davao’s coral reefs are just one beneficiary of the Trinity Project. Courtesy Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao’s coral reefs are just one beneficiary of the Trinity Project. Courtesy Henrylito D. Tacio

The World Wildlife Fund describes Davao Gulf as: “one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world,” but it is threatened by coastal erosion and more. “The sea was beginning to intrude into the century-old rainforest (bordering the Gulf), and even though the water showed superb clarity during calm days, any windy period would cause visibility to drop to less than two meters,” Morris reports.

The nearby forest, home to hundreds of wild pigs and Philippine monkeys roaming freely around, was also being threatened and is also being helped by Morris and the Trinity Project team.

“After we have completed the 4km coastline revitalisation,” he points out, “we will expand the project to neighbouring coastline areas too.  First, we will rehabilitate the damaged coastline,” he says.  “Then, we will improve the biological diversity that inhabits this part of the Davao Gulf.”

Morris believes that by rehabilitating the coastline, all three ecosystems – mangrove forest, seagrass meadows and coral reefs – can again return to 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 water.  Finally, the mangroves will dissipate the wave energy with their prop roots, pneumatophores and trunks before the waves reach the shore.

Unlike seaweeds, seagrasses are vascular plants – mangroves have a network of veins to move nutrients and dissolved gases around the plant, says Morris.  “The seagrass meadow will not only produce hundreds of thousands of liters of oxygen daily; it will also provide a habitat for spawning fish and their young, crustaceans, molluscs, and sea cucumbers,” he says. “Their roots and rhizomes will bind the sand and mud, improve the clarity of the water, as well as encouraging accretion rates of sediments that will benefit any nearby corals aside from building and maintaining beaches.”

The mangroves are also 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 in higher numbers,” he explains. Additionally, the restoration work will help crustacean populations expand and in turn attract larger predators to the site, as well as playing an important role in the breakdown of organic material.

“The Trinity Project is actually my design and creation, in partnership with a few people who possess the same mindset as me,” Morris says.  “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.”

Looking good

Morris foresees that the restored coastal ecosystems will continue to become stronger and more and more stable over coming years.

“I believe this kind of project can be perfected and replicated all over the Philippines,” he says, adding that it would expand the benefit to other areas in the Coral Triangle. This is because the local coral reefs, which the World Conservation Union describes as “essential life-support systems” necessary for human survival, can expand the habitat for a wide range of marine species.  

 The mangrove nursery produces new, healthy seedlings to plant along the coastline. Courtesy Henrylito D. Tacio

The mangrove nursery produces new, healthy seedlings to plant along the coastline. Courtesy Henrylito D. Tacio

The Coral Triangle extends across SE Asia and includes seas off the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. 

“These (Coral Triangle) reefs are the optimum environment in the tropical coastal ecosystem, allowing a huge diversity of aquatic life to live and breed,” Morris says.

Accordingly, Morris has already sunk 20 artificial reefs – known as “bommies” – off Hijo’s Banana Beach, built from scrap metal and porous stones.

 “At the end of March this year, we will see people have a snorkelling experience underwater (here) using a long-hose scuba system,” Morris says. “They can walk on the seabed among the reef structures at a depth of less than 5m. They can interact with the fish and sea-life there whilst experiencing first-hand how the Trinity project is developing.”

Social impact

As Morris points out, Davao Gulf needs to be restored to maintain its role as a fishing ground.  As the Davao Gulf Management Council recently noted, the Gulf is a “critical resource supporting the economies of six coastal cities and 18 coastal municipalities.”  

Now, with the initiatives introduced by Morris, there is a real possibility of saving the Davao Gulf from a depressing downward spiral of degradation and social poverty.

“I’m immensely proud of my family,” says Morris. “Our mom’s goal was to make us successful in our studies (and work).” It looks like Morris is doing his mom proud.