Founding director of the Experimental Lakes Area retires


Dr. David Schindler is one of Canada’s most influential environmental scientists, one of the worlds’ foremost limnologists, the former director of the Experimental Lakes Area, and an Officer of the Order of Canada.

On the occasion of his retirement, it’s a good time to reflect on all that David Schindler has done to advance our understanding of lakes. As the founding director of the ELA, he did a huge amount of research in a short amount of time, research that has gone on to have a great influence on how we manage our lakes and rivers.

The ELA was established to take on eutrophication problems that were occurring in Lake Erie and other lakes in North America in the 1960s. Laboratory studies at the time pointed to an excess of phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon as the problem. The “natural laboratory” setup of the ELA allowed scientists to isolate the effects of these nutrients on an ecosystem scale. Their studies showed quite dramatically that phosphorus was the key nutrient causing algal blooms and eutrophication, and that the effects could be controlled by restricting the input of phosphorus alone. As a result of this work, we have seen changes in the way we manage waste, a reduction of phosphates in detergents, and limits to development based on phosphorus loads. Schindler then set his sights on acid rain and climate change, doing similarly groundbreaking work.

Not only has Schindler done solid and convincing science at the ELA and elsewhere, he has not been content to leave his work on a shelf, but has taken it to the policy-makers and advocated for change. He believes it is the role of scientists to bring research into the hands of policy-makers, saying that if the work being done has policy implications, it ought to be known, and ministers ought to consider it. As he said in an interview with the environmental historian Stephen Bocking published in Alternatives Journal last fall, “I’d like to see the whole debate become much more open and healthy. I certainly wouldn’t want scientists setting policy—I think it would be a disaster—but I think science should be done and well-considered before policy is made, and it should be a part of the decision.” His work as an environmental advocate has seen him oppose the weakening of the Fisheries Act and push for more responsible monitoring of the downstream effects of the oil sands industry.

Schindler has been the Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta since 1989, and retired in May. To this dedicated advocate for lakes and their stewardship, we say thank you.