Clemson University Feature Stories

To catch a monster: Clemson English professor dishes on what’s really lurking in the water

By Molly Collins
Media Relations

Sean Morey has been fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys since he was 10, and was recently asked to address the issue of tarpon attacks on humans for the 'River Monsters' TV show on Animal Planet.There’s something in the water … but it’s not exactly a monster. And there’s something on reality TV that isn’t exactly … real.

Clemson English professor Sean Morey calls the tarpon one of the most majestic fish in the ocean, yet a recent episode of the Animal Planet hit “River Monsters” blames a tarpon swimming in the brackish waters of Nicaragua for the tragic death of a fisherman, giving the species a reputation that Morey calls a monstrous mistake.

“The tarpon is not nearly as deadly as the show portrays,” said Morey. “It supports the livelihood of many fishing communities who make most of their income during tarpon season, and many shallow water fishing guides in the Florida Keys make most of their income during the period when tarpon migrate through the area (late April through July). They couldn’t support themselves without the fish.”

Morey served as a consultant for this episode of the show, which follows biologist and extreme angler Jeremy Wade on his quest to wrangle the most dangerous creatures lurking in the water. Not only has Morey been fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys since he was 10, but he was asked to address the issue of tarpon attacks on humans when an assistant producer for ICON Films, which produces the show for Animal Planet, read a profile of the fish that Morey wrote while working at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Yet the end result is not exactly what he had in mind.

But we can’t believe everything that is considered “reality TV.”

Morey is a rhetorician and outdoor enthusiast himself, and the way shows like to stretch these tales goes hand in hand with his research on how narratives of conservation and sustainability are presented.

“I think we need to critique the media when they present a value judgment that could possibly lead to the killing of such animals out of misunderstanding,” said Morey. “While many groups — from non-profit organizations to university researchers to private fishing charter businesses — have all joined together in different ways to help research the tarpon and preserve the species, shows like ‘River Monsters’ exploit a story in order to portray the ‘Silver King’ as a ‘Killer Torpedo.’”

The episode gains its drive from the man-overboard scenario. The tarpon, a bony, inedible fish not caught commercially, is nicknamed the “Silver King” and makes what Morey calls “acrobatic leaps” when hooked. But what he and other sport fisherman view as the highlight of catching a tarpon is a death trap in the eyes of the locals as they recount horrific tales of those who have suffered at the fins of the fish.

“Occasionally, a tarpon large enough to cause damage will accidentally land in a boat after jumping, but usually the fish flops back into the water or is assisted overboard by the fishers,” said Morey. “This is entirely accidental, and the tarpon is by no means trying to ‘attack’ the boat.”

The show also goes on to claim that tarpon swimming in the waters of Nicaragua can grow up to 500 pounds or more, making them twice the size of those caught in Florida. Morey calls this a fabrication as well.

“The Florida record by an angler is 243 pounds out of Key West,” said Morey. “The angling world-record tarpon was caught in Guinea-Bissau and weighed 286 pounds 9 ounces. For the most part, the largest individuals have been found off the west coast of Africa, with one female weighing 355 pounds. However, two-plus times the size is a bit of a stretch.”

While ratings don’t lie — this season’s premiere garnered 1.8 million viewers and was the most watched season debut in Animal Planet history — we can’t always be sure about creative types. Just ask a fisherman.

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