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Anti-shark stereotypes in “River Monsters”

Jeremy Wade and a "river monster". Image from treehugger.com

Over Memorial Day weekend, Animal Planet aired a marathon of it’s new hit show “River Monsters”. The show focuses on self-described “biologist and extreme angler” Jeremy Wade’s attempt to find some of the largest freshwater fish on Earth. I’ve heard good things about the show in the past but had never seen it before. After discovering that there were two episodes that dealt with bull sharks, and I immediately DVR-ed them to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I was absolutely shocked at what I heard Jeremy Wade say about sharks:

“No fish inspires the same terror as the shark… but at least these killers are confined to the oceans… or are they?”

“As an angler and biologist I wanted to find out how this is possible, and how far inland these sharks will bring their reign of terror. My mission is to find out whether it’s safe to get back in the water even if you’re miles from the sea.”

“It would mean that there is no water safe from these predators. It can happen anywhere. The danger they present isn’t restricted to Australia.”

“Their ferocity is the stuff of nightmares… the ultimate killer shark”

“…there lurks a beast that is the embodiment of savagery…”

“…a battering ram armed with razor sharp teeth…”

Are you kidding me?

These quotes weren’t even the most absurd parts of the shows. Those came when Jeremy attempted to use his biologist background to explain shark behavior.

In “Freshwater Shark”, he interviews an Australian horse rancher who claims that one of his horses was attacked while swimming in a river 80 miles upstream from the ocean. Wade immediately assumes that a bull shark was involved, even though the river has a huge dam in it that would stop any fish from passing. He theorizes that a flood allowed a “colony of large bull sharks” to get over the dam. I wasn’t aware that bull sharks traveled in colonies, but Wade is a biologist, so that must be based on some sort of science. Right? There’s no way that any other large predators live in Australian rivers? Oh, that’s right. They do.

Photo by WhySharksMatter at Hartley's Crocodile Adventure in Queensland, Australia

Wade dismissed the theory that a croc was responsible because no one had reported seeing one that large in the isolated Aussie farm country. He claims that it’s far more likely that a flood caused a colony of sharks to bypass a dam. Yikes.

In ”Hidden Predator”, Wade notices a bull shark take a hooked catfish right off a fisherman’s line. From this one incident, he concludes that bull sharks in this region get all of their food in this manner, which he describes as “like a protection payment. The sharks steal a percentage of the fisherman’s catch, and in exchange they leave humans alone… at least for now”.  This observation, once again, is based on a robust sample size of one.  Later, he takes special care to avoid catching the same shark twice. After all, he doesn’t want the sharks to be afraid of boats, which would cause them to stop stealing from fisherman and start eating people. How considerate of him.

One of the most troubling scenes I’ve ever seen in non-fiction television occurred when Wade worked with SAMPLA scientists in South Africa who are trying to study local bull sharks. He reports that one of the scientists received death threats from a local for releasing the sharks after they’ve been caught and tagged. Rather than criticizing this outrageous behavior and standing up for science, Wade sympathizes with those making the threats and says “it’s hard to believe that once I’ve caught a potential maneater, these scientists plan to release it… like putting a fox into a chickencoop” I had to pause the DVR and scream at the TV for a little while after that one.

Once, while trying to catch a large bull shark, he caught one that couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. At that size (approximately 1.5 feet), they’re almost cute. Wade even tries to terrify us while holding the baby. He says “I already know there are big females in this river. This means they are breeding here…It’s a scary thought that this river will be its hunting ground for life”

Most ridiculous of all was Wade’s constant assertions that bull sharks swimming into freshwater was a new behavior. He describes this several times:

“more and more, it seems like this freshwater Jaws is bringing its savagery into our once tame backyard”

“This is totally not normal in a river”

“I’ve hooked a creature so strong there’s no way that it should ever be in this river”

“This unstoppable predator is bringing its savagery into the very heart of our civilized world”

“Now we know that there’s more than one shark using this river, and that’s a concern”.

“It seems one species of shark has been trespassing… fresh water, operating where people thought no danger existed”

Actually, Mr. Biologist, bull sharks have been doing this for millions of years. And of course there’s more than one.

This kind of unscientific fearmongering would be intolerable from anyone, but it is completely inexcusable from a scientist who works for a nature channel.

~WhySharksMatter