Q: Having visited so many of the world’s great rivers, is there one that particularly stands out?
JW: Hmm. That’s such a hard one, actually. There’s not a short answer to that. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have said the Essequibo river in Guyana. The fauna and flora there is very Amazonian. Even though it’s a distinct watershed, historically it was joined up, so you’ve got a lot of Amazonian fish there. To have a realistic chance of catching certain big Amazonian fish, that was theplace to go because the river had enjoyed a degree of protection, and it was possible to find some incredible fish there. Unfortunately in the last few years, that has changed quite dramatically, largely due to a surge in goldmining. The mining isn’t just affecting the goldmining areas. What’s happening now is that it is worth people’s while to get an icebox and make the long journey up the river, catch a lot of fish and go back down and sell them to the goldminers. Unfortunately – and this is very relevant in terms of what Shoal is trying to do – this decline is going on right before our eyes and getting very little attention, and it’s happening fast, really just in the last 5 years.
Q: What are some of the things you’ve learnt from the people who have fished these places for generations?
From talking to fishermen in different parts of the world, I’ve been struck by how common it is now to hear things like, “You know, 100 years ago this river was full of fish…”. People often talk about the scale of change over a – relatively short – timescale of a few generations.
One thing that is very clear is that catching freshwater fish is dependent on place and timing. Being in the right place is one thing, but you also have to be there at the right time of year. If you’re there at the wrong time you might as well not bother. Of course, there’s always a bit of uncertainty about what state the river is going to be in, and a certain amount of variation. But what I’ve found, just about everywhere I’ve been, especially over the last 10 years or so – everywhere from the far East of Russia to South America, through Europe and Africa – is that people are saying the whole cycle has become far more unpredictable. What’s interesting is that these people are not scientists. These are people whose lives depend on the river, people who are watching the river very closely, people who have inherited knowledge of what happens on that river. They say that over the last 10 years, they just can’t predict it any more. So, of course, this affects the fish.
You can imagine fish migrations where the river is going up so the fish start to head upstream, only for the water to suddenly start coming back down again, without ever properly rising. I’ve seen a similar thing with freshwater turtles in Guyana. The river starts going down, exposing the sandbars so the turtles think it’s time to breed, dig a nest and lay their eggs, then they get back in the river and it starts coming up again, washing away the nests! It’s another false start to the dry season.
So this really is happening, and perhaps one way to engage people in climate change is to show how it affects certain animals. People seem to love turtles, so if turtles come under the remit of Shoal, then I think that could be an interesting leverage point.
Q: I think the aim for Shoal is ultimately to try to increase support for all freshwater species, so turtles would certainly come under its remit. So, do you think the key to drawing people in is to focus on the more ‘iconic’ species, and particularly the apex predators, as you often do in your shows?
JW: Well, I guess it could be seen as a fairly cheap trick, in a way, but what I’ve realised – and this is part of the DNA of River Monsters – is that everybody is fascinated by predators. If they tell you otherwise, they’re lying! For our ancestors, it was all about paying attention to those things in the environment that were dangerous, so it’s absolutely fundamental to who we are as living beings. For River Monsters, we start with a story – here’s this fierce animal that bites people – and we immediately have people’s attention. Then, from there, we can take the story wherever we want it to go.
Q: Anglers are clearly an important audience for your programmes. What role do you think anglers can – and should – play in freshwater conservation?
JW: Anglers have an incredibly important role as the eyes and ears of what is out there. By teaming up with scientists and through citizen science initiatives, they can be a very useful resource in helping to understand what is happening to rivers and lakes. But on a more fundamental level, an angler’s pastime depends on fish, so it really should be a duty to have a concern for the wider world of fish. It’s about having a respect for freshwater fish and to express that in as many ways as possible. I think some anglers don’t particularly care, but an awful lot do. I think there are enough anglers who care to make a huge difference.