Taiwan will ban fishing of whale sharks, the largest living fish species, starting next year, the Fisheries Administration under the Council of Agriculture (COA) announced on Friday.
Fisheries Administration Director Hsieh Ta-wen (謝大文) said the year's quota of 30 whale sharks was reached on March 27 and that no more fishing would be allowed from March 27 until December 31.
Any stockpiled whale shark meat must be sold within three months, meaning that from June 27, no more selling of whale shark meat will be allowed.
Starting from next year, the fishing, selling, importing and exporting of whale sharks will be banned completely, he said.
The whale shark, the gentle giant of the ocean, is found in tropical oceans and lives in the open sea. The species is called the "tofu shark" locally because its delicate meat is purported to taste like tofu.
The shark, believed to have originated about 60 million years ago, can grow up to 20m in length and can weigh up to 30 tonnes. It is considered a delicacy in many Southeast Asian countries.
Hsieh said 12 out of this year's 30 whale sharks were caught in fixed nets and were released. The Fisheries Administration has also presented NT$3.47 million (US$104,000) in cash to fishermen for their cooperation in releasing the fish.
The released sharks were fitted with satellite tracking devices to help monitor their migration routes and provide more information about their ecology.
If more whale sharks are accidentally trapped in the fixed nets, Hsieh instructed fishermen to report the catch immediately and apply for a cash reward for not killing them. Such sharks will also be fitted with satellite tracking devices.
Fisheries officials also noted that two whale sharks accidentally caught off Hualien will be sent to an aquarium in the state of Georgia in the US early next month for educational, research and display purposes.
The aquarium purchased two whale sharks from Taiwan in 2005 and last year, but one of them died earlier this year of peritonitis.
Meanwhile, fishermen in three counties who mainly fish for whale sharks were disgruntled about the government ban, disputing expert opinion that the great fish is on the brink of extinction and complaining that a complete ban would jeopardize their livelihoods.
They said that the annual quota has continued to dwindle from 80 in the past to 60 last year and 30 this year in the face of global outrage over the continuing fishing of the endangered species.