The Fisheries Agency yesterday announced a five-year project with National Taiwan Ocean University and Wildlife21 that seeks to attach satellite tags to 100 endangered whale sharks to expand research and promote conservation of the species.
In celebration of International Whale Shark Day on Aug. 30, which was postponed because of a typhoon, the agency held a press conference yesterday to make public the results of the nation’s whale shark conservation efforts in recent years.
The whale shark, nicknamed “big dumb shark” by fishermen in Taiwan because of its slow swimming speed and tame behavior, is a highly migratory species often found in the seas near Taiwan, the agency said.
The meat of a whale shark is tender and white, which has also gained it a nickname, “tofu shark,” among seafood consumers in Taiwan who have made them a part of local cuisine, the agency said.
Since the species has a low reproduction rate and takes a long period to mature, the number of whale sharks has greatly decreased.
In 2002, the whale shark was included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Appendix II, meaning “not yet threatened by extinction, but may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation.”
The Taiwanese government launched a reporting system in 2001, started regulating the total catch of whale sharks in 2002, reduced the catch number annually from 2005 and finally put a total ban on catching, selling, possessing, exporting and importing whale sharks, the agency said.
Fisheries Agency Director Sha Chih-yi (沙志一) said since the first tag was attached to a whale shark in 2002, a total of 353 whale sharks had been tagged, with 323 conventional tag attachments and 30 satellite tags transmitting data. Data collected from nine whale sharks has allowed researchers to learn more about their daily habits and movements, he said.
Chuang Shou-cheng (莊守正), an associate professor at the university’s Department of Environmental Biology and Fisheries Science, said that in comparison to the five whale sharks that stumbled into set-nets annually, they have found about three times that number this year — evidence that the total ban has been helpful in preserving the species.
Whale shark catching is almost banned by every country in the west Pacific, except Japan, which still has no regulations, and China, he said.
He added that whale shark protection needs international cooperation, otherwise what is preserved in Taiwan would only become increased live stocks in other countries.
Other than satellite tagging to better understand the behavior of whale sharks, the agency said it also began a National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks in 2006 to gather more information on sharks, promote conservation education and international collaboration, and to enact a policy of “catching the whole shark, with fins attached” to avoid wasting sea resources by only cutting off the shark fins to supply high-priced seafood.
Wildlife21 executive director Rebecca Lisson said Taiwan’s efforts, including the new satellite project and its policies, place it in a globally leading role for protecting whale sharks.
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