TRANSCRIPT - Dr. David Suzuki Interview
David Suzuki is a geneticist, founder of the David Suzuki
Foundation and a Professor at the University of British Columbia.
He also hosts the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's science
television series, "The Nature of Things" and is
author of "Science Matters."
Do you believe we have reached the limit for growth on this planet?
over the world, whenever I happen to visit a place like Africa or
Madagascar, New Zealand, Australia, anywhere I go, I try to seek
out elders whove lived in an area for 70, 80 years. And I
ask them, "What was this place like when you were a child?"
And everywhere I go around the world, people tell us that the planet
has changed in a fundamental way. They talk about fish as far
as you could see. Our elders in British Columbia talk about going
out in a little row boat and being able to rake from the seaweed
and fill a punt with herring in a matter of minutes. They talk about
going out in a rowboat with a shovel and just shoveling abalone
off the rocks into the boats and filling it in no time. They talk
about salmon in runs that were so massive you could hear them coming
from miles away.
All over the world, elders are a living record of the enormous changes
that have happened in the 70% of the planet that is covered in water.
Its happened in a lifetime. And if its disappeared in
each of these regions, do we think there are massive areas of ocean
waiting for the things we drive out to go somewhere else! If theyre
not here where we knew them as children, theyre not anywhere.
So our elders are the best way to verify the enormous changes that
are going on. And it is simply not sustainable. We cant continue
to deplete the ocean resources the way we have and think that this
can go on indefinitely.
Since salmon was listed as an endangered species in the US theres
a belief that to ultimately save this species it will require a
complete reshuffle of the economic base of the pacific northwest.
Do you agree?
problem we face today with something like salmon on the west coast
of Canada and North America is that where the salmon have disappeared
there is absolutely no assurance that even if we were to try a massive
program of restoration that the salmon would ever come back. I mean
weve so altered ecosystems, up and down the coast. The notion
that we are clever enough to say "Oh-oh, we made a mistake, weve
got to start now, pouring massive amounts of effort into trying
to get them back," is still a conceit that we know enough to
be able to restore them. So from my standpoint, its not at
all clear that we will ever get anything like what once was, even
if we have the commitment, the will to do it and the money to do
it. In terms of asking the question, "Would it be worth making
the investment, to take down dams on the Snake Rivers and to try
to restore the Fraser River?"
dont think that anything like that could ever be argued in
economic terms. Its simply an issue that goes far deeper than
anything economic. Its a question of "What is our place
on this planet?" and "What is our relationship with the
rest of life on earth?" Is this planet a place where other
creatures can live rich full lives as well, to accompany us, because
we live here for a very brief moment in time. Right now we seem
determined to domesticate every possible thing that we can on the
planet, in the service of whatever our needs are. And, of course,
its suicidal in the long run because we are still a deeply
embedded species in the rest of the nature around us. But we seem
compelled to try to imprint our image of what we want from the planet.
And it wont work! I think it leaves us spiritually bereft.
The cost, to me, of what we have done and continue to do is a spiritual
cost, not an economic one.
In what way do you think salmon are perhaps an ultimate indicator
species for an ecosystem thats out of balance?
talk about key species or indicator species; critical species that
if you remove them or reduce them in an ecosystem, it may lead to
a collapse. My own feeling about keystone species is that its
a conceit on our part to think that we know which elements of an
ecosystem are crucial. The knowledge base that we have of ecosystems,
of what makes up an ecosystem and how the components interact is
so limited that we have no idea what a keystone species is. Of course
there are charismatic species like grizzlies or elephants or whales.
And salmon are, to me, a charismatic species. Their abundance, the
magnificence of their life cycle is an inspiration. Its inspired
the First Nations people that lived up and down the coast.
It was what their cultures were built on. And we understand why
we focus on salmon. The biomass mass represented by the salmon runs
every year must have been unbelievable in pre-contact times.
of course, extirpating that biomass mass must have an enormous impact.
But again, we know so little. How can we even begin to assess it?
When you think of 60 million bison that ranged up the center of
this of this continent and were extirpated in a matter of a century
mean the impact of that, ecologically, must have been tremendous.
But we didnt have total collapse, and chaos. We extirpated
over three billion passenger pigeons in a matter of a hundred years.
And again, it wasnt that there were total collapses. And yet,
they must have been keystone species.
with regards to your question of what is a keystone species, is
the salmon the critical or key indicator species? My own feeling
is that its going to be some little thing out there in the
ocean that we havent even discovered yet that will suddenly
be found to be an absolutely critical component. I
think that as a species which boasts of being intelligent, we ought
to have far greater humility with what we can say about systems
that exist out there. If we were going to manage something far simpler
than say, wild salmon
lets say a shoe factory. I would
think that any manager of a shoe factory would require at least
two things in order to manage that factory properly. Youd
need an inventory of everything in your factory. And then you would
need a blueprint that tells you how everything in the inventory
is connected. And if you knew that, you might be able to manage
it indefinitely. Now you think about the natural world out there.
the hell do we know about a forest, about the soil, about the oceans?
We know diddly. We know nothing. When you look at the estimates
of how many species exist in the world, its estimated anywhere
between 10 and 30 million. Now a going number seems to be 10 to
15 million species. Of those species that exist, scientists have
identified about 1.5 million. That just means that somebody has
taken a dead specimen and given it a name. It doesnt mean
we know anything about how many are there. Where do they live, how
do they eat, how do they reproduce, how do they interact with other
species? It means someone has given a dead specimen a name. Okay.
So lets say theyve given one and a half million names
and there are 10 million species of which we know 15% by name. Out
of that 15%, we know a fraction of 1% of any of them in any kind
of detail to say that we know something about their biology. So
how can anyone have the conceit or the arrogance to say that we
can manage natural resources? Its absurd. I say, anyone who
says that seriously is either lying or is a fool. Because we dont
know enough to be able to manage that.
What you have just said speaks volumes with regards to the precautionary
approach to fisheries resource management. Its meant to serve
as a means to start guiding some decisions within fisheries management.
What is your view on this?
me, one of the most pernicious approaches to management of nature
is to set up a committee with all the quote, "stakeholders"
at the table. If youre going to deal with management of salmon,
then of course we have to have an international committee because
our salmon are so stupid, they dont know theyre Canadian
salmon, they get stuck in American nets and Korean nets and Russian
nets. So we have to have all of the countries involved in taking
those fish. And then we have to have of course, the commercial fisherman
present and the native fishery. We have to have the sports fishers.
And then of course we have to have the Minister of Forests whose
activity affects the fish and the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister
of Energy, Urban affairs.
all of these people come with different perspectives and theyre
there to fight for their turf in terms of the way it interacts with
those fish and what they want out of the fish. But it makes absolutely
sure that the most important stakeholders are never at the table.
And thats the fish themselves. Who looks out for the fish
and makes sure that their biological history and their future is
insured? We dont start from the idea or the simple notion
that fish lead a very complex life. And because of their abundance
and their health, we human beings are able to parasitize them to
a certain extent, and make a living. And we ought to be very careful
about the degree of predation that we impose on those fish. But
instead its, "Im a commercial fisherman, damn it,
and its my right to take my share, and I want to get as much
And so if one asks, "Well are we coming to any kind of precautionary
approach to the resource?", the answer is I dont see
much evidence of that. And it is stymied, I think, in large part,
so long as we commit ourselves to a process of allowing all of the
stakeholders and forgetting then what the real issue is. The real
issue is the long-term survival and resurgence of the salmon.
When theres a decline of fishery resources, say a decline
in salmon for example theres sometimes a response from the
capture fisheries to say, "Hey, aquacultures the answer!".
Whats your view on this?
may very well be that aquaculture will be able to take up some of
the slack when weve found that we simply cannot restore wild
stocks of marine fishes. I personally think its far too early
to begin to think of that. Because the mentality, the bureaucratic
mentality, of course, is that, those in power can see fish farms
being set up very quickly and results start coming out of these
pens very quickly. So its a very nice, political time frame.
You can say, "Im going to invest a huge amount of money
and give support to aquaculture," and you can see a payoff
in numbers of jobs and amount of income coming in within a matter
of years. In terms of the wild stock, in order to restore those
rivers if we can ever restore runs back to the rivers that
have lost their stocks, youre talking now about decades or
perhaps generations. And of course, thats a time frame that
is far beyond anything a politician can afford to look at. So we
have the terrible dilemma that politically, fish farms are very,
very attractive. And if the wild stocks are gone, what the hell,
its too expensive anyway, so lets just repopulate the
whole coast with fish farms.
I personally think that this is a spiritually bankrupt approach.
But I also think it is an ecologically, potentially, very devastating,
activity. Sure, fish farms may work, especially if theyre
in hard containers and especially, if they were on land, which is
where I think that we ought to have our fish farms, in hard containers
on land, or hard containers in the water. But we were assured by
government, DFO, that Atlantic Salmon, for example, grown in net
pens, would not pose a hazard on the West Coast. One, that they
would never reproduce. When they were actually found spawning, we
were told by DFO that they will never, the fry will never hatch.
And when the fry were hatched they said, "Well, theyll
never survive." And now weve got two-year-old Atlantic
DFO actually had the nerve to suggest that maybe it was environmental
groups that had actually seeded these fish in the rivers to prove
their point. DFO has been horrifyingly wrong at every point. And
yet the encouragement is to have fish farms in which you have exotic
species brought into Pacific Waters. We have five native species
of salmon, for heavens sake, on the West Coast. Why do we
need another species, an exotic one, with all of the problems of
disease, escapes and potential replacement by an exotic species.
Great Lakes in North America are an ecological disaster area; Lake
Ontario, the fifth lake in this chain, has been planted with Pacific
salmon, chinook and coho and Atlantic salmon. And a few years ago
I went to do a film on these fish. And we set a net in the lake,
pulled out about 300 salmon. About three quarters of them were coho
and chinook. Every single one was dead. Some were only caught by
the teeth, but they were all dead. The rest were Atlantic salmon,
every single one was alive and kicking. Some were caught by the
gills. When we took them off and let them go, boom, they were gone.
Now what does this mean? Pacific salmon has evolved to live its
life, run up the river, spawn and die; its got one shot at
it. And so I believe they have a life force. They hit the net, they
give it everything theyve got; they run out of their life
force and they die. The Atlantic Salmon is a survivor. It runs up
the rivers, spawns goes back, runs up again another year and spawns
five or six times in its lifetime. They are repeat survivors.
And so they hit the net, they fight but theyre going to survive.
Theyre going to fight and keep going.
we have a case on the West Coast where we have depleted rivers with
the Pacific Native stocks, we introduce now, alien species, the
Atlantic Salmon, which is a survivor. My own feeling is that these
are potentially the rabbits in Australia. Once they establish a
toehold, because they are survivors, they are going to really wreak
havoc in these ecosystems. Now I think anyone who says, "Well,
thats good, the Pacific Salmon are disappearing anyway; its
good to get another biomass in there to replace it" has no
understanding of what ecological systems are and about the nature
of the interaction of various components.
supporting a study here showing that not only do the salmon need
the forest - we know that. Because when you clear cut the forest,
the salmon disappear. The forest needs the salmon. The salmon represent
the largest single pulse of nitrogen fertilizer that the forest
gets each year. Because the salmon are taken by the bears and the
eagles and the ravens into the forest where they fertilize the trees.
If we have Atlantic salmon that dont die that way, youre
going to remove all of that potential biomass from the forest. And
do we think the forest isnt going to feel the effect of that.
So people just dont think properly. If they think, "Well,
weve extirpated Pacific Salmon, so lets stick in another
exotic", its crazy.
I hear of efforts here in Vancouver to genetically modify salmon
for the aquaculture industry. What are the potential risks with
going on today in genetics, and Im a geneticist by training,
is nothing short of miraculous. I see experiments going on now,
in laboratories, at undergraduate university laboratories that I
never dreamt I would see in a lifetime. So its easy to understand
why scientists are intoxicated with what theyre. We can take
DNA out of one species, read the sequence of genes that have letters
in the genes. Take those genes, stick them in another organism.
And its truly revolutionary. But because it is such a powerful
revolutionary technique, it seems to me that we ought to be even
more cautious about what were doing. You see, right now were
in the very early phases of genetic manipulation. And what I like
to tell people is, "Dont you understand that the way
that cutting-edge science works is by advancing, by proving our
current ideas are wrong?" Thats the nature of cutting-edge
graduated with a Ph.D. in 1961, and man I was hot! I was as hot
as anybody at the time. When I tell students today what we believed
genes were and chromosomes and DNA in 1961, they fall on the floor
laughing. Because in the year 2000 what we thought were the hot
ideas in 1961 are ridiculous. But then I tell these hot-shot students,
"Youre not going to believe this. But when youre
a professor, 20 years from now, and you tell your students what
you believed about genes in the year 2000, theyre going to
fall on the floor laughing at you." Most
of our current ideas are wrong, and thats the way it is in
any hot, exciting, revolutionary area. So thats not a denigration
of the science, its simply the way it is. Why do we want to
rush to apply every incremental insight that we get, when the chances
are overwhelming, the reason were trying to do the manipulation
will prove to be wrong. And if thats the case, it will prove
to be downright dangerous.
most of our principles in genetics have been derived by breeding
a male and a female of one species, crossing them, looking at their
offspring, crossing them and, and following them on down. This is
called vertical inheritance. You look at breeding within a species.
What genetic engineering allows us to do is take a gene from this
species and transfer it, laterally or horizontally, into a different
species, and then follow that gene down. Now geneticists make a
fundamental error when they think that the principles theyve
developed by looking at vertical inheritance now apply when you
taken genes and stick them in horizontally. They think because its
DNA, youre manipulating DNA, "So what difference does
it make, we take it out of this fish and put into a tomato plant;
its DNA." That is a fundamental error. Because DNA, of
course, is DNA. But genes dont evolve by natural selection
on each gene, alone, separately.
you have is the entire genome, the sum total of the genes in a fish,
lets say, are selected by nature, on the way those genes interact
to produce the fish. So the whole genome is an integrated entity.
When you take a gene out of a fish and stick it into a tomato plant,
as scientists are doing, that fish gene finds itself surrounded
by a tomato gene that is going, "Whoa, where am I?" Because
youve changed the context within which that gene operates
still DNA, same stuff that you find in the tomato plant,
but its a totally different context. And there is absolutely
no basis for saying the behavior of that gene will be exactly the
same as if you just bred the tomato plant as just another tomato
plant. And thats the fundamental error that Im shocked
that most bio-technologists havent seen that thats not
a valid assumption to make.
I dont say that theyre going to be "frankenfoods"
or dangerous things happening; Im just saying "Hey, we
dont know." We dont know what the behavior of those
trans-genes will be. And until we can, in the lab, reproduce results,
start being able to predict the exact behavior of these genes were
flipping around we sure as hell ought not to be releasing these
creatures out into the wild or growing them in fields. And we sure
as hell ought not to be testing them out by doing an experiment
with people by letting them eat it. Its not that Im
against all this manipulation; our ignorance is too great.
In our research I was told certain types of Pacific Salmon are being
farmed. Are they modifying the genes of those fish?
know, Ive had students who were out taking genes from one
species and putting them into salmon growth genes and trying to
get more rapid growth. And you can do all of that in a test tube
or in a tank; thats easy. I mean you
I can tell you
a very simple way to get bigger, bigger salmon in a tank. What you
do is you go and edectomize them, you remove their testes or ovaries.
Those fish will not die on cue at four or five years as they do
out in nature. They will keep on growing and they get bigger and
bigger and theyll live for years and years. Thats been
known for years. Now in fact, it was a guy then that said, "Hey,
this a great idea, well just go and edectomize a whole bunch
of fries, release them. And theyre going to come back in eight
or nine years huge. Well they let go thousands and thousands of
these creatures that didnt have gonads, and they never came
back of course. Because the idea of what you do in the lab and manipulate
and so on, then release them in the wild, and theyre going
to behave as you predicted, is absurd. Its absolutely absurd.
you take a gene and I dont
this is a hypothetical thing,
take a gene out of a shark, stick it into a salmon and get the salmon
suddenly in a holding tank to grow six times faster, into these
giant salmon. Well do we think for a minute that then we just have
to breed up a bunch of these and release them and theyre going
to come back that much bigger. I mean weve had thousands of
years of natural selection to hone the entire genome of the salmon.
And the idea that we can do something as crude as taking a gene
from another species and ramming it home into that genome and get
an organism that is going to function out there and compete in the
natural world is
well, lets say its naïve
With regards to genetics and fisheries-hatcheries, we hear a lot
about the other horror story which is the dilution of the gene pool
from wild stocks. What is your view on this?
reason we have such an enormous abundance, and some people think
its a waste to have a massive return of salmon that clog the
rivers and overshoot the ability of the river to support. And this
is the kind of terminology I hear. Well of course, what this is
a wonderful cauldron for constant selection then from the animals
that are returning. They have been selected throughout their life
cycle. Then they make the final run up the river. That is a way
of providing you with a wide gene pool within which survivors, or
gene combinations can exist that will allow the species to survive
over long-term change. See the nature of biological systems or the
planet, is that over time the planet has changed enormously.
life evolved 4 billion years ago, the sun was 25% cooler. Its
increased in its temperature by 25%; there was no oxygen in the
atmosphere. It was much more carbon dioxide. The poles have shifted
around and gone back again; there have been all sorts of enormous
changes, and yet life has persisted, how? Life has persisted we
now understand by maximizing the amount of genetic diversity that
exists within each species. So as things change, youve got
a pool of genes within which to select out possible survivors out
of that. When we impose a human agenda, which is to say, "Lets
set up a hatchery" were going to select on a very limited
number of features. Were going to look for size or beauty
or whatever you want to impose as a selective agent. And then were
going to breed up millions and millions of eggs from a limited number
of individuals that fulfill our expectations.
you do then is immediately reduce the size of the gene pool that
youre drawing from. But were undergoing enormous changes
right now. If ever there was a time when we need maximum gene diversity,
its now. The planets getting warmer. We know that the
temperature of water and rivers is going up. We know that there
are much more pollutants. There is greater runoff. All kinds of
things are happening that are altering the path of the salmon. This
is a time when we need huge amounts of genetic diversity. And yet
if we think were going to go in and start selecting with an
attitude like, "Oh the water is getting warmer; we better have
some heat-tolerant salmon and start selecting on that basis."
This is crazy because were just restricting the gene base
on which these creatures depend.
Part of what were looking at in our series is the new eco-label
for the Marine Stewardship Council; the idea being that consumers,
by voting with their pocketbook, can actually create changes in
the way we fish. What do you think individuals can do to have a
positive influence on sustainable fishing methods?
think there are a lot of things that we, as individuals can do.
Of course, the global situation is just so massive and terrifying,
that people often feel dis-empowered because they have a sense that
"Im so insignificant, what the hell difference does it
make? If I go out and catch two more salmon what the hell difference
does it make?" I think there are many, many things that we
can do. For one thing, we definitely are catching way too many salmon
either commercially or by sports fishing. And the idea that
you can catch a fish, or catch an animal and play around with it
while its in its death throws; its fighting you for
its very life. And then we bring it into the boat. We remove this
hook and let it go and we say, "Thats sport fishing.
were catch and release." This is madness. I mean youre
torturing an animal for your pleasure. And do you think for a minute
that animal is going to survive? I mean that animal has been exhausted;
its played its life out.
just think that we have to get over this idea that we have the right
to just go out and torture an animal and then we can feel good about
it because we let them go. If youre not going to eat it, dont
go fishing. Its as simple as that. But you can go out in a
boat. There are many other things that you can do to enjoy the experience
of being out. But if youre interested in the future of salmon,
dont catch them if youre not going to eat them. I think
we also can, by the way that we buy things, we can certainly influence
the kind of policies. Carl Safina who wrote The Blue Ocean
has published a list of a number of commercial fishes that you often
seen in restaurants, and shows the ones that are in danger or are
at risk. And that certainly, for me, had a profound effect.
Foundation started a tiny project a few years ago that has been
amazing to me. In 1900 there were estimated to be 50 or 52 rivers
and creeks in the City of Vancouver that had salmon runs, unique
salmon runs. Today there is one. And the only reason it continues
to exist is that it runs through the Musqueam Indian Reserve, and
they have valued that run. Now it was down to, I think 10 or 12
salmon one year. And we got involved with the Musqueam trying to
restore that river or creek. Now the amazing thing is there had
traditionally been a great deal of mistrust between the native community
and the non-native community that lived right around that reserve.
the community began to see that the Musqueam were trying to restore
the salmon run. And the community itself took possession of that,
as theirs, as part of their heritage. And it was very exciting
to see old ladies walking along the road, bailing out the Musqueam
people who were trying to preserve the creek, saying "Get out
of there; thats our salmon creek, get out of there,"
you know, and just feeling that it mattered to them. And Id,
Id find all across this country, there are communities that
are trying to restore salmon runs and its a very uplifting
experience. The commitment you see from kids and elders trying to
return those fish is absolutely inspiring. People want to do something
and you can do something. Go out, give money to support people,
volunteer to organizations, change the way that you buy things;
change the way that you fish or deal recreationally, all of those
things. Each person is insignificant. But if you add millions and
millions of insignificant people, it adds up.
Part of what were looking at in the series is the world population
growth and the idea that marine resources is finite, not infinite.
Whats your view on eating lower in the food chain?
was a boy in the 1950s going to high school. And my teacher said,
"The oceans are an infinite source of renewable protein."
Maybe in the 1950s the oceans were an endless source of renewable
protein, but we know for sure that it isnt today. Those vast
resources that existed there, in my lifetime, are gone. And its
absolutely shocking to hear scientists like Daniel Pauly tell us
that perhaps up to 90% of the fish that were once there are now
gone. I mean my wife and I wept for days after hearing that. We
are now lamenting what has happened to the oceans; we are grieving.
We are grieving not for us, weve lived off the abundance of
that ocean, but were grieving for our grandchildren. My grandson
calls me all the time and says, "Grandpa, please take me fishing
where your dad used to take you." I cant because there
is nothing to take him fishing for.
thats what Im grieving for, that what we took for granted
when we were children isnt there. Now what is the cause of
that? Well of course, a lot of it is greed. Instead of really talking
about sustaining resources and caring from a biological standpoint,
weve got in and mined the resources as quickly as we could
get them, because money doesnt represent anything. If you
mine out all the fishes, well you just take the money and put it
in trees. When the trees are gone you put it in computers. Money
doesnt stand for anything and it grows faster than real things.
So the economic system drives you to trash the resources that youre