Jeremy Wade has traveled world searching, and catching monsters. The biologist, writer and fisherman is host of Animal Planet’s extremely popular television program, River Monsters. Whether it’s landing a toothy goliath tigerfish in the Congo or the odd goonch catfish in India, Wade has made it his mission to bring these misunderstood “monsters” to the surface, educating viewers, young and old, about animals they never knew existed before, making them better stewards of our freshwater ecosystems.
Wade joined the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium for its annual gala, March 5, as the keynote speaker. Here, we caught up with the extreme angler to get a few fish stories, and what drives him on his endless quest to discover new monsters.
PBI.COM: How did you get into fishing?
WADE: That goes back to when I was very young, seven or eight years old. I grew up in Southeast England, in a small village that had a river [Suffolk Stour] running very close. My parents gave me a very cheap, basic fishing rod; nobody in my family fished. So that was something I got into fairly accidently. But once I started catching fish, it got my curiosity and it was the case of wanting to catch more fish, bigger fish, and different fish. I suppose that process has continued to this day.
When did you start traveling for fish?
I would say in my late 20s. I think what happened was the UK sort of ran out of interest for me. It is quite a small country; there is not a lot of water here compared to the number of people.
One day I heard about a fish in India called a mahseer, I relative of the carp but lives in very fast water, rapids. It took a few years from actually hearing about this to transform into action, but I got myself a cheap ticket to India and took off in 1982.
I didn’t really know what I was doing; it was my first time outside of Europe, and I had a hard tome of it. I got quite ill, but I did catch some fish and wrote a couple of articles about my experiences. From that point on I tired to get away, normally, for three months at a time every year or every other year.
Jeremy Wade with the Goliath Tigerfirsh, caught in the Congo River.
Photo credit: Icon Films/Animal Planet
What’s the wildest place you’ve been in pursuit of a fish?
Quite possibly the Congo in Central Africa; it is just a part of the world outsiders don’t normally go. I had heard about a fish called the goliath tiger fish there, which is actually a relative to the piranha that is a few feet long with piranha-like teeth that as big as an inch long. It sounded almost unbelievable; I wanted to see this thing for myself.
What are some of the coolest fish you have caught?
One fish that stands out was from the very first episode [of River Monsters] that we did, called the goonch catfish in India. Most catfish don’t really have teeth to speak of; instead they have lots of very, very small teeth close together. The effect is almost like a file. But this particular catfish has very long, pointed teeth. And like other catfish, it has tentacles on its mouth and on its fins. It looks like something from a Hieronymus Bosch painting came alive.
Another interesting fish is the electric eel in the Amazon. It is actually not a true eel, but they call it such because of its elongated shape. A lot of the fish I deal with have teeth, or, if is a stingray, a barbed spine, that sort of thing; normally you could look at a fish and tell how it might potentially damage you. Though it is rather snake like, the electric eel looks fairly harmless, but this is a fish with invisible powers. It can generate a very powerful electrical charge, immobilizing you. I have spoken to eyewitnesses who have had people die in front of them in just knee-deep water, because if you are zapped by an electric eel, if someone comes to help you, they run the risk of getting zapped as well. When we were filming electric eels, the crew that I was with had a defibrillator, and a long wooden pole with a plastic hook on the end so that they could fish me out of the water if something did happen.
For more with Jeremy Wade, head to page two.
What would you say drives your exploration for these freshwater fish?
As they say, curiosity killed the cat…I’m mixing my metaphors horrendously here, but it has gotten me into deep water on a few occasions after fish. I have had various incidents along the way because very often, [curiosity] and exploration does take me into parts of the world that can be quite difficult, and quite dangerous at times.
Why do you think these fish grab so much attention from your viewership?
We have a lot of children who watch the program—though its not just children—and I think there is a fascination for things that are quite ugly. And these fish are certainly quite ugly. I think children very much identify with that misunderstood monster thing.
Jeremy Wade with 1,161-pound goonch catfish. This catch measured 5 feet, 7 inches from head to tail with a 41-inch girth and 44-inch wingspan.
Photo by DCL
What are some of the lessons learned from River Monsters?
We are not overly ambitious with the program. We want the program to be educational, but if you are just educational, people turn off. So we are almost doing natural history by stealth.
My view is in order to get people to care about something, they have to know, first of all, that it exists. A lot of [fish] we show, people have never seen before. I think that makes them sit up and take notice. Our main thing is to summarize, to make people aware that first of all, here are these animals you never knew existed. Once they are aware of them, we can get people’s sympathy for these things.
We don’t explicitly say we should strive to conserve these creatures, but at the end of every program, I say, “yes, this is the fish that pulled somebody under the water or bit their leg…” And then I put it back into the water. I never make a comment about this. People instinctively understand why I do this: that fish belongs in the water, I am not killing it but putting it back. How we coexist with potentially dangerous creatures, whether they are in the water or wherever they live, is by adapting our behavior. The answer is not to try and kill everything. That in particular sends a very strong, implicit message; we don’t spell it out, but I think people instinctively get it.
What worries you most about these river monsters?
What frightens me more is a world without monsters because if these things are not in our waters, it is a sign the water quality is not good. And that is bad news for us. The fact that there are these “so-called” monsters in the water is a good sign. If they are not there, there is actually something wrong with the whole food pyramid; it doesn’t exist.
On your travels, what is one of the biggest ecological issues you have come across?
I think, to be honest, one of the biggest problems that I see in less developed countries is over-fishing. In a sense, the program [River Monsters] gives a bit of a false impression: It gives you this idea that wherever I drop my line, I am going pull something up seven-foot long with big teeth, when in fact, we really have to do our research. It is actually very hard to find these fish.
It is very easy to get your hands on a net made of monofilament line now, and it is quite cheap. And the difference between [fish populations] now and say 50 years ago, certainly 100 years ago, is very dramatic; there has been this really steep decline. One iconic fish in the Amazon, the arapaima, said by many people to be the biggest freshwater fish in the world, has suffered a huge decline in recent years.
Photo by Jeff Kubina
It is a very difficult thing though. I know people in the Amazon, in Brazil, who are technically poachers. People living in the interior of the Amazon need to fish to feed themselves, and also, very often, they have no other source of income. So they will also catch fish to sell. But its not just people who fish for subsistence, but quite a lot of commercial fishing has taken over the Amazon. There are quite a lot of people who live in the Amazon now; Manaus is a big city with two million inhabitants, and they all need feeding. So there is an industry to feed them. It is a very big issue, and something that I do think is being addressed.
[In the past], you would have commercial fishing come along to a certain river or certain village, give somebody a bit of money, and basically go and empty out a lake. People would sort of think, oh a little bit of money in return for these people coming in for a few days wasn’t a big deal. They are now realizing it is actually a very bad deal, having other people catching your own fish in local waters.
What can be done?
Freshwater around the world is under pressure. It is a big problem that the world is facing, but one of the advantages that rivers have over the oceans is that, often, the jurisdiction is clear-cut. There is one country involved; it is not just a total free-for-all, which is the case with a lot of the oceans.
One thing that is being done in Brazil, which is quite bold, and does seem to be producing some results, is the idea of an extractive reserve, so you are letting the local people be the guardians of the place. You are saying to them, you can harvest these fish—it could be arapaima for example—but set limits on it. So in a sense, it guarantees them an income. This fish is prohibited to hunt elsewhere, but in these particular places, you have a certain quota of fish you can catch and make a living.
There are imaginative things being done. Instead of classifying people as poachers and telling them to sort of leave the land, they are allowing them to be custodians of the land and the water. And that seems to be the way forward: people operating at a local level, benefitting locally, and it is driven by the decline that has happened all over the Amazon.