Dr. Eric Taylor’s research (PhD ’89) focuses on the evolution and conservation of freshwater fish. The UBC zoologist is also passionate about angling. His new book, Rivers Run Through Us: A Natural and Human History of the Great Rivers of North America, weaves together the social and ecological histories of some of the continent’s most important waterways.
What sparked your interest in rivers?
My dad was an outdoor enthusiast, we did a lot of canoeing and fishing when we were kids. Later, I became a professor who researches the biodiversity of freshwater fish, and since many fish live in rivers, you need to know something about rivers to study fish.
Eventually, I realized that rivers are more than habitats for fish to live in, they have unique dynamics and they have stories to tell. Many of these stories involve the history of human development – there is a connection between the history of rivers and their interaction with humans, but we tend to take them for granted. We have to appreciate them as rivers and not just as things that give us resources, like fish or energy. Hopefully, if we understand rivers better, we will be more motivated to protect them and the services they provide to humanity.
There are 500,000 rivers in North America. How did you determine which ones to focus on?
I was looking for rivers that had a substantial impact on human development and that covered a large geographic scale, using each river to illustrate the diversity of human-river interactions. So we have the Yukon River and its world famous tributary, the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory – the site of the last great “gold rush” in the world. Or, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River, which turned a desert environment into an agricultural juggernaut, and more. It was a challenge to reduce the book to just ten rivers. I would make lists of 10 and always wanna sneak into a number 11!
Do you have a favorite river?
I should say the Fraser River; it is the soul of British Columbia. It has been important to humans for thousands of years and its Pacific salmon populations are a hallmark of biodiversity. Each angler, however, has their own river, and mine is the Canim River which flows from Canim Lake in the Cariboo region of British Columbia.
You say you tried to explore rivers and their interactions with humans as an “impact continuum”. What does it mean?
Two ways of looking at river-human interactions tend to dominate the literature. One is to examine human activities such as dam construction and pollution, and their generally negative ecological impacts, and the other is to examine how rivers have influenced human development. But these things cannot really be separated and occur along a gradient of interactions.
We have rivers like the Mackenzie River that basically stay in their original state, and on the other end of the spectrum you have rivers like the Colorado River that hardly ever flow into the Sea of Cortez anymore due to the dams. and urban and agricultural development. I wanted to look at a full range of interactions, not just the ecological or social aspect in isolation from each other.
What is the most interesting fact that you learned while writing this book?
One of the most enjoyable parts of writing this book was discovering all of these things that I didn’t know. But I’ll give you some quick examples. The most abundant anadromous fish in the Columbia River today is the American Shad, native to the is rating. This year, five million shads have come up the river, which is more than all the native species of Pacific salmon combined! The river has undergone dramatic changes in terms of species composition induced by human intervention. Another fact is that 93 percent of all mega-cities in the world – that is, cities with more than 10 million people – are built on a river. For example, Moscow on the Moskva River, New York on the Hudson River. In five years of writing, I have learned so many interesting things about rivers – I hope readers enjoy these things too.
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