No visit to the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta is complete without a stroll through its most impressive feature, a transparent tunnel that transverses the world's largest fish tank. When viewed from inside, the 24-million-liter Ocean Voyager Exhibit teems with schools of predatory ronin, fleets of stingrays, goliath groupers and hammerhead sharks. The fanciful vista reveals many wonders, but none so magnificent as its four Taiwanese whale sharks, bus-sized fish on display for the first time anywhere outside Asia.
These gentle leviathans, named Alice and Trixie, Yushan and Taroko, are the Georgia Aquarium's star attractions. In its displays, press releases, Web site and talking points, the Georgia Aquarium - which has been visited by more than 5 million people and viewed in the media by millions more since it opened nearly two years ago - describes Taiwan as a beautiful country that cares for the environment. For a diplomatically isolated nation like Taiwan, publicity can't get much better than this.
But many within the conservation community, both in Taiwan and abroad, have argued against sending the whale sharks to Georgia. Pointing to statistics that show a steady decline in both the size and number of whale sharks observed in Taiwanese waters, they say the removal of even a few individuals could disrupt migration patterns and speed population decline. Paying for whale sharks, they say, encourages fishermen to capture more in the hopes of selling them to other aquariums and marine parks. And they note aquariums in Taiwan and Japan experienced problems keeping these delicate creatures healthy.
"Catching whale sharks and sending them overseas is the wrong way to protect this threatened species," says Allen Chen (陳昭倫), a marine biologist at Academia Sinica. "This is the world's biggest fish. It's hard for them to survive in the ocean, much less an aquarium, no matter how big or technologically advanced it is. If they run into a fisherman's net, tag them and let them go, don't fly them 16,000km to Georgia, where their final destination is death. I don't think Georgia will ship them back to Hualien like Free Willy."
"The Georgia Aquarium is portraying itself as the rescuer of these whale sharks. We, the nice imperialist Americans, went in there and saved the whale sharks," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal specialist at the Humane Society of the United States. "But when you pay fishermen big money for live animals, that creates an incentive for fisherman to go out and catch more and try to get more buyers," she added, citing the bottle-nosed dolphin as an example. Japanese fishermen, she said, catch them by the thousands because every year a few are sold for US$20,000 to US$30,000 to water parks in China and elsewhere. The rest, seen as competition for fish, are killed.
In Taiwanese waters, whale sharks are usually caught in position nets, which are designed to catch other large fish, such as bluefin tuna and mackerel. These nets funnel the fish into ever-smaller nets and cause minimal harm, making fish captured this way attractive candidates for an aquarium.
Whale sharks have long been occasional items on Taiwanese dinner plates. They're called "tofu sharks" (豆腐鯊魚) - though Taiwanese conservationists now seem to prefer the more politically correct "whale shark" (鯨鯊) - because, like tofu, their meat is soft and flavorless. It must be smoked and eaten with wasabi and soy sauce, or stir-fried with garlic, chili, and other heavy ingredients to make it palatable.