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Asia Dive News : Taiwan to ban whale shark consumption trade by 2008

Taiwan will ban the harvest and sale of whale sharks beginning in 2008, a decision that could have repercussions at the Georgia Aquarium and other facilities where the world's largest fish are displayed.

"From the beginning of next year there will be a total ban on catching and selling whale sharks and whale shark meat," Lan Wei-tern, a spokesman for Taiwan's Fisheries Agency, said Monday.

The ban strikes whale shark from Taiwanese grocery shelves and menus, and at other Asian markets where whale shark meat from Taiwan is consumed.

The ban also would halt Taiwan's export of whale sharks to aquariums. The Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest aquarium, has three whale sharks from Taiwan, a major supplier of whale sharks. It is negotiating to get two more this summer from the Taiwanese government, before the ban takes effect.

The aquarium had four whale sharks until January, when a male, Ralph, died. A necropsy showed the fish died of peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen. He also had stomach perforations, possibly caused by force-feeding through a PVC pipe.

Taiwanese officials say they want to know more about Ralph's death before approving the export of two more.

Jeff Swanagan, president and executive director of the Georgia Aquarium, said Taiwan made the right decision to stop whale shark trade.

"Georgia Aquarium applauds Taiwan for its leadership in conservation in the region, moving from a fishing-based economy around whale sharks to an eco-tourism-based economy around whale sharks," Swanagan said in a statement.

An aquarium spokesman declined comment on how the ban would impact any future plans to acquire whale sharks.

According to Taiwanese fisheries oficials, the aquarium is planning to export next month two male whale sharks already in captivity in an offshore pen.

The ban recognizes "world opinion" as well as domestic concerns about the world's largest fish, said Chu Yung-cheng, another fisheries department spokesman.

"Many Taiwanese have developed a sense of environmental protection," Chu said.

The species needs protecting, said Brad Norman, director of Ecocean, an Australian nonprofit group working worldwide to protect whale sharks. He called the ban "absolutely fantastic."

"The number of whale sharks has dropped dramatically over the past few years and the ban sends a message both to Taiwan and the rest of the world that officials there recognize how imperiled this animal is," Norman said.

Rhincodon typus, the whale shark, is a mysterious animal —no one knows how far whale sharks migrate, their life expectancy, or how many exist in the wild.

Numbers from the fisheries agency indicate that the species is under pressure in Taiwanese waters.

In 1995, according to records, Taiwan caught 270 whale sharks. In 2001, the catch dwindled to "about 100," said Zhuang Shouzheng, an associate professor at National Taiwan Ocean University.

The next year, 2002, Taiwan set an 80-fish quota of whale sharks. Also that year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora classified whale sharks as "vulnerable to extinction."

Taiwan's quota in 2006 was 60 whale sharks; this year, the government cut it to 30. Taiwanese fishermen so far this year have caught 39. They've freed nine to comply with the 30-shark limit, according to the fisheries agency.

Numbers indicate that whale sharks aren't thriving.

Shark-watchers at the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park in Australia, for example, said they've seen "one of two" whale sharks daily this year; in previous years, they cataloged six or seven every day, said Norman.

"It's a really, really critical time right now," Norman said. "Their current number is such that we really can't sit on our hands."

The big fish are "iconic species," said Jason Holmberg, an Oregon researcher who has studied whale sharks in Australia and the Honduras. "They are gentle giants, the 'safe' shark," said Holmberg, who cheered Taiwan's decision.

They're also pretty tasty.

Monday night, at the Really Good Seafood restaurant in downtown Taipei, a plate of whale shark stir-fried with garlic shoots sold for about $12. Restaurant manager Kuo Yaoming said the meal— also called "tofu shark" for its soft, white flesh — is not as popular as it once was.

"Now, more Taiwanese want to protect the environment," he said.

Other nations feel similarly protective. The Maldives, where locals used oil from whale sharks' livers to treat boat hulls, forbade whale shark fishing in 1995. In 1998, the Philippines put an end to the practice. India followed in 2001.

Yet the ban is not worldwide; whale sharks can still be taken for food or display from some nations' waters, said Holmberg. The Belize government for example, might agree to export a whale shark, he said.

But the ban still helps, Holmber said. "A lot of conservationists," he said, "feel that now is the time for whale sharks."