INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT - Dr. David Suzuki Interview #1

Dr. 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?

All 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 who’ve 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. It’s happened in a lifetime. And if it’s 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 they’re not here where we knew them as children, they’re 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 can’t 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 there’s 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?

The 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 we’ve so altered ecosystems, up and down the coast. The notion that we are clever enough to say "Oh-oh, we made a mistake, we’ve 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, it’s 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?"

I don’t think that anything like that could ever be argued in economic terms. It’s simply an issue that goes far deeper than anything economic. It’s 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, it’s 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 that’s out of balance?

Biologists 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 it’s 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. It’s inspired the First Nation’s 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.

So 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…I mean the impact of that, ecologically, must have been tremendous. But we didn’t have total collapse, and chaos. We extirpated over three billion passenger pigeons in a matter of a hundred years. And again, it wasn’t that there were total collapses. And yet, they must have been keystone species.

So 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 it’s going to be some little thing out there in the ocean that we haven’t 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…let’s 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. You’d 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.

What 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, it’s 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 doesn’t 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 let’s say they’ve 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? It’s absurd. I say, anyone who says that seriously is either lying or is a fool. Because we don’t 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. It’s meant to serve as a means to start guiding some decisions within fisheries management. What is your view on this?

To 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 you’re going to deal with management of salmon, then of course we have to have an international committee because our salmon are so stupid, they don’t know they’re 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.

And all of these people come with different perspectives and they’re 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 that’s the fish themselves. Who looks out for the fish and makes sure that their biological history and their future is insured? We don’t 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 it’s, "I’m a commercial fisherman, damn it, and it’s 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 don’t 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 there’s a decline of fishery resources, say a decline in salmon for example there’s sometimes a response from the capture fisheries to say, "Hey, aquaculture’s the answer!". What’s your view on this?

It may very well be that aquaculture will be able to take up some of the slack when we’ve found that we simply cannot restore wild stocks of marine fishes. I personally think it’s 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 it’s a very nice, political time frame. You can say, "I’m 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, you’re talking now about decades or perhaps generations. And of course, that’s 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, it’s too expensive anyway, so let’s just repopulate the whole coast with fish farms.

Now 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 they’re 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, they’ll never survive." And now we’ve got two-year-old Atlantic Salmon.

And 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 heaven’s 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.

The 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; it’s got one shot at it. And so I believe they have a life force. They hit the net, they give it everything they’ve 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 they’re going to survive. They’re going to fight and keep going.

Now 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, that’s good, the Pacific Salmon are disappearing anyway; it’s 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.

We’re 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 don’t die that way, you’re going to remove all of that potential biomass from the forest. And do we think the forest isn’t going to feel the effect of that. So people just don’t think properly. If they think, "Well, we’ve extirpated Pacific Salmon, so let’s stick in another exotic", it’s crazy.

I hear of efforts here in Vancouver to genetically modify salmon for the aquaculture industry. What are the potential risks with this?

What’s going on today in genetics, and I’m 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 it’s easy to understand why scientists are intoxicated with what they’re. 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 it’s 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 we’re doing. You see, right now we’re in the very early phases of genetic manipulation. And what I like to tell people is, "Don’t you understand that the way that cutting-edge science works is by advancing, by proving our current ideas are wrong?" That’s the nature of cutting-edge science.

I 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, "You’re not going to believe this. But when you’re a professor, 20 years from now, and you tell your students what you believed about genes in the year 2000, they’re going to fall on the floor laughing at you." Most of our current ideas are wrong, and that’s the way it is in any hot, exciting, revolutionary area. So that’s not a denigration of the science, it’s 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 we’re trying to do the manipulation will prove to be wrong. And if that’s the case, it will prove to be downright dangerous.

Now 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 they’ve developed by looking at vertical inheritance now apply when you taken genes and stick them in horizontally. They think because it’s DNA, you’re manipulating DNA, "So what difference does it make, we take it out of this fish and put into a tomato plant; it’s DNA." That is a fundamental error. Because DNA, of course, is DNA. But genes don’t evolve by natural selection on each gene, alone, separately.

What you have is the entire genome, the sum total of the genes in a fish, let’s 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 you’ve changed the context within which that gene operates — still DNA, same stuff that you find in the tomato plant, but it’s 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 that’s the fundamental error that I’m shocked that most bio-technologists haven’t seen that that’s not a valid assumption to make.

So I don’t say that they’re going to be "frankenfoods" or dangerous things happening; I’m just saying "Hey, we don’t know." We don’t 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 we’re 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. It’s not that I’m 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?

You know, I’ve 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; that’s 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 they’ll live for years and years. That’s been known for years. Now in fact, it was a guy then that said, "Hey, this a great idea, we’ll just go and edectomize a whole bunch of fries, release them. And they’re going to come back in eight or nine years huge. Well they let go thousands and thousands of these creatures that didn’t 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 they’re going to behave as you predicted, is absurd. It’s absolutely absurd.

So you take a gene and I don’t… 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 they’re going to come back that much bigger. I mean we’ve 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, let’s say it’s naïve at best.

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?

The reason we have such an enormous abundance, and some people think it’s 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.

When life evolved 4 billion years ago, the sun was 25% cooler. It’s 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, you’ve 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, "Let’s set up a hatchery" we’re going to select on a very limited number of features. We’re going to look for size or beauty or whatever you want to impose as a selective agent. And then we’re going to breed up millions and millions of eggs from a limited number of individuals that fulfill our expectations.

What you do then is immediately reduce the size of the gene pool that you’re drawing from. But we’re undergoing enormous changes right now. If ever there was a time when we need maximum gene diversity, it’s now. The planet’s 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 we’re 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 we’re just restricting the gene base on which these creatures depend.

Part of what we’re 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?

I 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 "I’m 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 it’s in its death throws; it’s 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, "That’s sport fishing.… we’re catch and release." This is madness. I mean you’re 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; it’s played it’s life out.

I 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 you’re not going to eat it, don’t go fishing. It’s 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 you’re interested in the future of salmon, don’t catch them if you’re 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.

Our 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.

But 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; that’s our salmon creek, get out of there," you know, and just feeling that it mattered to them. And I’d, I’d find all across this country, there are communities that are trying to restore salmon runs and it’s 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 we’re looking at in the series is the world population growth and the idea that marine resources is finite, not infinite. What’s your view on eating lower in the food chain?

I 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 isn’t today. Those vast resources that existed there, in my lifetime, are gone. And it’s 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, we’ve lived off the abundance of that ocean, but we’re 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 can’t because there is nothing to take him fishing for.

And that’s what I’m grieving for, that what we took for granted when we were children isn’t 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, we’ve got in and mined the resources as quickly as we could get them, because money doesn’t 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 doesn’t stand for anything and it grows faster than real things. So the economic system drives you to trash the resources that you’re dealing with.