Morgs cartoon Jan 2016

One of the west’s best: David Morgan

(From a chat in late January 2016)


Ebb – Hi David, welcome to the Lair, thanks for agreeing to this interview at short notice, I know it must be difficult for you to open up to Dr Phil?

David – Thanks Ebb (aka Dr Phil), I’ve opened up to you many times so this shouldn’t be too hard, unless the Bundy Bear is in your ear.


Ebb – Tell us a little about your early years growing up in WA and how fish were a part of your life?

David- Well I had a pretty lucky childhood, where my parents, sister and I spent school holidays at Rottnest Island, Busselton and Dunsborough, as well as nights prawning on the Swan River. So I was always around the water and dad loved spearing cobbler, squiding, crabbing and prawning. I learnt pretty early to use a gidgee and was a dab hand with a crab net. Thanks to dad teaching me. I grew up in Rossmoyne on the banks of the Canning River and we lived near a small creek and some wetlands (now built on) where mates and I used to chase gilgies. I still remember catching a monster flounder at a young age off the Busselton Jetty, with dad telling me it was just weed. I still am partial to a crab sandwich and fresh squid.


Ebb- So when did you know you wanted to go to university to study fish biology?

David- From a young age I wanted to be a marine biologist. I almost made it and do dabble in the salty water a bit, but opportunities arose to do an Honours on Balston’s Pygmy Perch, a species that I still work on. I guess the early years drove me in this direction.


Ebb – David can you tell me why it is you’re such a big fan of the Australian Society for Fish Biology?

David –I think that the main reason is that the Society members are easy going, welcoming to young fish biologists and it is a non-pretentious group. Plus, being from WA, where we used to feel a bit isolated before emails, web and cheap flights, we never really knew what was happening on the east coast unless it was on a Rex Hunt show. A big bonus is that I have met a number of people, like yourself, that have become really good friends, and collaborations are easy to forge within the society.


Ebb – Pleasantries out of the way and because I know you reasonably well, I believe I owe it to our following to mix it up a little. Can you explain the two-seine theory to other fish research folk?

David – “Second-seine theory” I believe you are referring to. Although probably not scientifically robust, it is a great method to collect fish for specific samples. Whether it is the disturbing of sediment, I’m not sure, but predatory fishes appear over the disturbed ground following the first seine; although it may also be from the screaming of thousands of small fish being captured and released in a dazed state. All I know is it works!


Ebb – If you could have been a dual international and played cricket for Australia and been a fish ecologist but was forced to live on the east coast, which state would you choose to play for? Where in the order would you have preferred to bat? What would you have bowled? And in which fish province would you have liked to have spent some serious time?

David –Cricket was more of a hobby for me, and although my left-arm-round-the-wicket poop, as a mate calls it, was OK, I did have a good inswinging yorker; taking 3/0 for the VC’s 11 versus the students with a bung hip was my career highlight. Although for the last 30 years my school mates and I play a Boxing Dax cricket match in our old stomping ground. I was more of an Aussie Rules ruckman in terms of talent. Unlike modern day players that change States regularly, my parochialism wouldn’t have allowed me to do that. In terms of fish, the gulf country interested me after a trip with yourself and Stirling Peverell, although the wet tropics would make a great contrast to WA and the work that you guys are doing is fascinating. I also really would like to see the fish fauna of the Tasmanian lakes and around Fraser Island.


Ebb – Dave, who are some of the old and new contributors to Western Australian specifically (and perhaps further afield) in freshwater fish science and management that you admire and why?

David –When I started Honours on Balston’s Pygmy Perch in 1992, I met with the then Curator of Fishes at the Western Australian Museum, Gerry Allen. He was eager to help me in locating this rare fish and he has inspired so many. Other WA products, such as the late Luke Pen gave me a great deal of support and he assisted in me getting a post-doc in 1998. Other freshwater fish scientists that have really supported me include, early on, Ian Potter and Howard Gill (my PhD supervisors) in learning techniques and publishing, while Stephen Beatty and Mark Allen have been really supportive collaborators. Paul Close in recent times has also been doing some great work in the west. No one in the freshwater scene can ignore the passion of yourself, Adam Kerezsy, Mark Lintermans, Michael Hammer, Peter Unmack or John Koehn.


Ebb – David, I can vouch for your ability to take good fish photos, but a few individuals such as Steve Beatty, myself and some guy named Viss, to name a few, are curious as to how so many good photos are attributed to your lens?

David –Photo S. Visser! Look, in my defense, a few Viss photos that I sent to people were given my credit, but I have never purposely claimed someone else’s photos. Viss and Mark Allen taught me a few techniques, but I don’t take many fish photos these days, perhaps I’m scared (or scarred).


Ebb – I’ve done a little back ground check and come to realise you now have published in the order of a hundred journal papers. Doesn’t this make you feel old? I mean, are there any of these papers you are especially proud of?

Dave – I guess I’m most proud of the early papers on the biology of Balston’s Pygmy Perch, Salamanderfish and Trout Minnow, mainly as they took years to collect monthly samples of length-frequency, GSI, aging, histology and collection was often difficult. Nowadays I like a short note, and there are a recent couple on sawfish that I am pretty happy with. I am also really pleased with the two field guides (Pilbara and South-west) as they are pretty good summaries of the fauna and involved some great colleagues such as Beats, Mark Allen, Ash Ramsay and James Keleher, as well as yourself. A recent overview of the fishes in WA also is a good extension of these field guides.


Ebb- Together, you and Stephen Beatty seem to have really been productive together. Is it important to you guys to churn out heaps of papers, I guess I’m keen to know what is your motivation and how have you managed to keep this up for an extended period?

Dave – We have been working together for about 15 years now, and we are both singing the same tune for our supper, have young families and a similar background. We are both on partial contracts at Murdoch University and the powers that be require a somewhat productive output. With the inevitable expiry of contracts looming, we have been well aware of the need to produce some outputs that the University recognises. But we also are aware of the community perception and we have been driven to provide information or tools for the general public and take the research to the people. Unfortunately universities are now blinkered into looking at those possessing ARC grants and high impact publications, so it will be interesting to see if we survive far into the future.


Ebb – I realise you are a family man. Is it important for you that your children understand in some way your passion for conservation science , or do you try to keep work and family stuff separate?

Dave – As a single parent, kids are the most important thing to me and they are all pretty well in touch with conservation things. I have taken them on many field trips to the Pilbara or Kimberley and they are pretty good helpers. They are getting a bit older now so hopefully they want to keep coming. I give their class talks most years and they get pretty excited about that. They also like a crab sandwich.


Ebb – Which picture have you chosen to provide and tell us about?

morgs and kids

David and his three children

Dave – I chose a picture from a Pilbara trip in 2014, which was in an effort to fill in some gaps in photos, film and species distributions for the field guide, and the kids had a great time. Beats, MA and family, James Keleher and Ash Ramsay and kids came along to that inspiring part of the world. A great field trip and a great memory for all.


Ebb – Morgs, I’ve been fortunate enough to be your sidekick on a few occasions in the Kimberley. So I know the Fitzroy River region is special for you. Would you mind conveying some of your feelings about that part of the Kimberley to our readers?

Dave – I started working on the Fitzroy River in 2001, and there have been so many field trips to the region. You can run, but you can’t hide in the Kimberley. Everyone knows when you are there, and the people have been so accommodating to us. I am so lucky to have work with many different language groups and ranger groups in determining language names for fish and in the Team Sawfish project. It is a very special river, and it is a place I hope to work in for a long time. Nothing beats camping next to the Fitzroy River and catching a barra or a sawfish with great people around. It is a river that we really need to look after, but the constant calls for water abstraction, damming, agriculture and impacts of climate change will continue to challenge us.


Ebb – Dave without trying to kick the crap out of you publicly, you have clearly slowed up physically in recent years. However, you show no signs of slowing up professionally. Do you mind if I ask, what is coming up for D. Lloyd Morgan? Have you got some itches to scratch, science and/or conservation challenges and aspirations yet to be reached?

Dave – The hip replacement slowed me down a few years ago, and the requirement to feed, develop and school three wonderful kids has been a challenge. I think one of the challenges that we all face is the ability to attract funds and a salary. The constant need to pay to work is not ideal and places a lot of pressure on researchers like me that are finding funding for most of their own salary; as I’m sure you are familiar with. I have been fortunate to ‘survive’ for about 17 years as a partially self-funded post-doc, so future is never certain under this scenario. When I look back, WA freshwater fishes were not on any radar, and now they are well-known and the threats are being understood. I hope to continue to be involved in freshwater fish conservation at Murdoch University for a few years yet!

Morgs on the tools

Morgs on the tools near Onslow, WA

Ebb – Dr Morgan, thank you for giving up your time and for being forthright in your responses to my at times informal questioning. Undoubtedly, I would have preferred to use electricity to extract some answers. Keep on swinging mate and take care.