Q: Was there a moment you realised that a lot of rivers you were spending time on were in trouble, or was it more of a gradual realisation?
JW: A bit of both, really. It has been gradual, but there have also been moments where it’s really hit home.
Right from the start, I was aware that for the kind of fish I was looking for, it wasn’t just that people weren’t going and fishing for them, it was actually that these fish were disappearing because of all the damage that has been done to rivers in recent years.
One experience that really brought it home was the last time I went to the Congo. I was in a place on the Congo River where very few outsiders go, somewhere with a very low population density. I went to one village where people have a history of fishing for catfish and the scarcity of these fish – we’re talking about the main Congo here – really struck me. It is shocking to see the impact that even a small human population can have on fish.
Q: Why do you think that freshwater is something of a ‘cinderella issue’, and doesn’t get the attention that, for example, tropical forests or coral reefs get?
JW: I think it boils down to two things. Firstly, you can’t see the animals you’re talking about – or at least most people can’t – so it’s a lack of visibility. And then, if you do get to see them, a lot of freshwater fish are not great looking!
Goonch catfish (Bagarius Yarrelli ) © Icon Films
I used to do quite a bit of diving and I always wanted to be diving in rivers, where you’re generally not going to see very far. Most divers are interested in coral reefs and other marine environments, so people used to wonder why I was so keen to see brown fish in brown water! It’s true that a lot of freshwater fish aren’t all that exciting visually, but in fact there are some incredible looking fish out there in rivers and lakes, even if we don’t often get to see them. Something like the arapaima, in the Amazon, for example, get this incredible red colouration. I’ve seen individuals in breeding season where the body goes absolutely jet black, but then they have this vivid red on the edge of the scales. They’re amazing looking things, but most people would never see that. If they do see them, it’s because a fisherman has caught one and is cutting it up.
Then there are other freshwater species that just look very odd indeed. For example, the Goonch catfish in India looks like something out of the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, it’s like a giant slug, has tentacles hanging off all different parts of its body and huge spiky teeth. I don’t think we make enough of how unique and bizarre many of these species actually are.
Q: In a way, it’s similar to what you see with some of the deep-sea species, and all the amazing creatures that live in the ocean depths. The fascination is often precisely because of how extraordinary – and how ugly (to some) – they look.
JW: Yes, there seems to be a spectrum: you’ve got the pretty fish, then you’ve got the ordinary looking fish, which nobody is really interested in, but once you start shading into the ugly fish, the interest picks up again!
Q: It is not always easy to recognise the importance and relevance of the world’s great rivers and lakes to our health and wellbeing, wherever we live. Why should people care about freshwater systems on the other side of the planet?
JW: Absolutely, I think it’s a very abstract subject and difficult to get across. From my point of view, having a scientific background, you understand the water cycle, you know that it’s not one particular river, in isolation, but that in fact water circulates throughout the world, and passes through every one of us. Just as many of us have a strong interest in air quality, we should have the same interest in water quality. The great thing about fish is that their presence in water generally tells you that the water is OK. But to get this across in a way that is not overly scientific is difficult. I think you almost do it by stealth.
If you can get people interested in the fish, which I hope I do through the programmes I make, the idea is that people start to care more about those fish and, by extension, about the water and the habitat they live in, and they begin to understand that protecting these fish and habitats is ultimately in their own interest too.