Fishermen traditionally did not fish for whale sharks, but media coverage of the big swimmers as an exotic food instigated commercial hunting a decade ago. The average price for whale shark meat in recent years was NT$200 per kilogram, meaning a typical specimen would sell for NT$200,000 to NT$300,000.
According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), Taiwan was possibly the world's largest market for whale shark meat. Some 32.5 tonnes of meat were obtained from legal harvests in 2004 in a survey of only two major wholesale fishery markets, one in Taipei, the other in Taichung. The same year, Taiwanese consumed 68.5 tonnes of whale shark.
Conservationists have long pushed for the government to ban the trade and consumption of whale shark meat. Data collected by the National Ocean University in Keelung shows that both the number and average size of whale sharks sighted in Taiwanese waters has declined slowly but steadily over the past six years. The Council of Agriculture's Fisheries Regulation Division says it has been monitoring the situation and decided in 2000 to phase out whale shark fishing, an official said.
Though there is some dispute, the Georgia Aquarium likely helped speed this process. This year saw the death of the first pair of Taiwanese whale sharks, males named Ralph and Norton after characters in the television series The Honeymooners. Ralph sank to the bottom of Ocean Voyager exhibit in January. Norton was euthanized under similar circumstances in June. Both had shown signs of illness and had been force-fed through PVC tubes for months. The aquarium is still investigating the cause of the deaths but has indicated that a chemical used to clean the tank may have been the culprit. Alice and Trixie, who arrived later, were not exposed to the chemical.
In addition to creating a public relations disaster for the Georgia Aquarium, Ralph's death threatened its agreement with Taiwan to import a final pair of whale sharks. There was an understanding that a total of six whale sharks would be sent to Atlanta, and three of the giant fish, named Alishan, Yushan and Taroko, were being held in the ocean just off Hualien while scientists monitored their health and decided which two were to go.
The three fish were among the 30 Taiwan allowed fishermen to catch and sell this year under a quota system. Originally set at 80, the quota has been steadily reduced until this year, when it was reached in March. In May the government announced it had banned the fishing, trade, and consumption of whale sharks entirely. If a Taiwanese aquarium should decide in the future that it wanted a whale shark, it would have to get one from another country.
Critics of the Georgia Aquarium in the US speculated that the final ban was related to Ralph's death. The Georgia Aquarium, however, has suggested its work with Taiwan helped push the government in the right direction. In an interview on Thursday, Georgia Aquarium President Jeff Swanagan said he believed the aquarium had "some influence." Elaborating on this comment Friday in an e-mail exchange, spokesman Dave Santucci wrote: "The role we played was to raise the global awareness of whale sharks by the 5 million guests we've had here in the first 18 months and the billions we've reached through the media."