Jeremy Wade, expert fisherman and biologist, has turned over nearly every stone when it comes to freshwater fishing. Known best for his legendary catches on the Animal Planet show, “River Monsters,” which concluded its ninth and final season last year, Wade has traversed the world’s rivers for nearly 35 years in search of fearsome aquatic predators. But as his travels accumulated, he noticed a troubling trend: The big fish were becoming harder and harder to catch. In an interview with the Emerald, Wade said a trip to the Amazon River to catch the illustrious arapaima was particularly alarming.
“I was expecting [arapaimas] to be hard to find, hard to catch,” Wade said. “But what I wasn’t expecting was to find that they had actually been wiped out from huge areas of the Amazon.”
In his new show, “Mighty Rivers,” which premieres in the United States on Sunday, April 8 at 6 p.m. PST on Animal Planet, Wade investigates the disappearance of various apex river predators. Throughout this investigation, he examines the ecological health of the Ganges, Amazon, Yangtze, Mississippi, Danube and Zambezi rivers.
“We take water for granted, we take rivers for granted,” Wade said. “Rivers are very forgiving — they’ll take a lot of abuse.”
But that abuse has reached a critical level, according to Wade. Toxic chemical runoff from factories and other areas of industry have many river ecosystems at their breaking point. He said he hopes “Mighty Rivers” can bring awareness to the plight the world’s rivers are under.
“[The plight] doesn’t just matter to fish, it doesn’t just matter for people who like catching fish,” Wade said. “All the important, delicate reactions that happen in our bodies — they are all mediated by water. The water cycle flows through each of us. It’s in our interest that that water is in good condition.”
A challenge for Wade was turning the investigation into compelling television. He said that because TV is so visual, translating an abstract subject like river health into something that people can see and hear was difficult. Therefore, “Mighty Rivers” is built around the dramatic journey Wade takes exploring each river. Wade and his team dealt with several tense situations, including being kicked out of Zimbabwe in the midst of filming by the Zimbabwean government.
“It was really ironic,” Wade said. “We were actually going to show a couple of good news stories about the Zambezi in Zimbabwe. We couldn’t show them because we were kicked out.”
Wade and his crew also had a close call flying in a small, prop-engine plane over the Brazilian jungle. Wade said as the flight went on, an intense storm began to develop. When they reached their landing spot — a muddy airstrip in a remote town run by a local mining gang — the storm had engulfed the plane. Wade said the pilot made a miraculous dive through a break in the clouds to land safely.
“There was this collective sigh of relief when we got down on the ground,” he said.
Wade said the success of “River Monsters,” helped immensely during his investigations for “Mighty Rivers” because he was immediately recognized in many of the communities he visited around the world. Therefore, he did not need to waste time explaining who he was or why he was there. The model for “River Monsters” however, was more straightforward: Wade caught the biggest fish he could find.
“The whole success of ‘River Monsters’ was we showed people animals they didn’t know existed,” Wade said. “I think if you’re just showing some fish that’s just a few inches long, just a generic fish, people shrug their shoulders and go, ‘so what?’”
While he appreciates the reputation “River Monsters” has given him, Wade said he had no idea the show would last as long as it did.
“People say it’s just a fishing show — which it is — but I think it is more than that. It is a type of natural history program.”
Previously a secondary school teacher in his home country, the United Kingdom, Wade said he has always had a passion for opening people’s eyes to lesser-known aspects of life. According to Wade, freshwater fish are understudied by the scientific community, partially because they are difficult to observe. Due to the silt and sediment transported by rivers, visibility is lower compared to many ocean environments.
“In something like a coral reef you’ve got a lot of really pretty, nice fish,” Wade said. “ I’ve got nothing against them, but I find pretty fish can get a bit boring after awhile. Whereas in freshwater you get these things with tentacles hanging off them all over the place. You get fish that generate electricity. There’s just more variety and more weirdness, and people like that.”
As for any advice he would give to an aspiring biologist, Wade said one should follow his or her own interests and enthusiasm rather than what others believe they should do. He also said to be prepared for failure.
“When things work out, it always much more meaningful if you’ve failed before,” Wade said. “I’ve failed to find a job of any description for many years, so to finally get the one that I wanted means that much more.”
Follow Franklin Lewis on Twitter (@flewis_1)