HOUWAN VILLAGE, Taiwan — Standing on a metal platform, Alger Liu, 26, scoops up a pile of krill, lowers it to the tank below him, and into the gaping maw of a whale shark — the largest fish on the planet.
Liu calls the 13-ft, 1,500-pound juvenile whale shark "Ah", in honor of his huge mouth (officially, the beast is nameless). After his ladel's been emptied, Liu uses it to "pet" Ah's head ("Like a dog," Liu said. "I think he likes this.")
Taiwan's only captive whale shark has it pretty good. It gets 25 pounds of krill a day. It has a doting caretaker. More to the point, it hasn't been chopped up into little pieces, stir-fried and scarfed down at a seafood restaurant.
And in two to three years' time, when Ah grows too big for his tank — say, when it's 19 to 20 feet long — the seaside National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium will set it free in the Taiwan Strait, Liu said.
Such treatment reflects a budding spirit of conservation among Taiwanese. Once seen as prime seafood, whale sharks are now viewed as a vulnerable species, research subject and ecotourism draw. It's a sign, too, of how younger, better-off generations have embraced environmentalism.
"There already are so few of them [whale sharks] said Sofi Chung, 20, a bartender in Kenting, a nearby seaside vacation area. "We shouldn't eat them."
Experts credit Taiwan's changed view of whale sharks to a campaign by global and local environmental groups, media coverage and pragmatic government policies.
In short, whale sharks are a success story of environmental policy-making in this free-wheeling young democracy.
Whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean (blue whales are the largest mammal), can grow up to 40 feet in length. In the wild they feed mostly on plankton, and are harmless to humans (Liu said Ah will even take him for circular "rides" around the tank). By early this decade, Taiwanese fishermen had noted whale sharks' dwindling numbers in waters near the island, from a catch of about 270 in 1996 to just 100 in 2001, according to Joung Shoou-jeng, a whale shark expert at National Taiwan Ocean University.
A 2002 conference brought fishermen together with activists and experts for a lively debate on the way forward.
Then the government acted, instituting a fishing quota for several years before a total ban in 2008 on the fishing, sale and consumption of whale shark.
Now, flouting that ban can get earn you stiff fines and up to three years in prison. The Fisheries Agency says there's only one such case so far, in which a chopped-up whale shark was found on a fishing boat (the case is still working its way through the courts).
"At first, there were some voices of protest [against the law] among fishermen," Joung said. "But now, they accept it."
Taiwan's ban was especially important for whale shark conservation. As recently as five years ago the island was the top market for whale shark meat, called "tofu shark" by local diners for its soft, chewy consistency.
Now, experts say the ban has worked — the meat has vanished from seafood markets and is off the menu at restaurants. "It's been pretty effective," said Joyce Wu of TRAFFIC East Asia.
One reason for success: Fishermen who accidentally snare a whale shark in their nets are paid NT$30,000 (about $915) to set it free.
According to Taiwan's Fisheries Agency, 165 whale sharks were caught and released last year after the fishing ban took effect; 79 have been set free so far this year.
Researchers use the opportunity to tag the whale sharks for tracking. Professor Joung says they're now studying the shark's migratory patterns. Taiwan could soon offer whale shark eco-tours to waters where the sharks congregate, as is done already at Australia's Ningaloo Reef.
Still, the picture for whale sharks isn't entirely rosy. In Taiwan, the NT$30,000 per-shark subsidy will be phased out by the end of this year. That could swell a "black market" for whale shark meat here, Joung said.
And activists say that a global ban is what's really needed. "If we really want to have effective conservation, I think the only way to do it is to ban [whale shark fishing] everywhere," said Allen Chen, a marine biologist at Academia Sinica. Finally, some activists go farther, saying whale sharks shouldn't be kept in captivity at all. Aquariums retort that their whale shark exhibits help educate the public, which is essential to gaining support for global conservation.
In Dubai last year, a luxury hotel released its whale shark, dubbed "Sammy" by the local press, after a "Free Sammy" campaign (complete with Facebook page) drew too much negative attention.
There's no "Free Ah" movement in Taiwan; the debate is somewhat moot here, since "Ah" is the island's last captive specimen, and he's due to be released in the next few years anyway.
The U.S. boasts four whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium. Two others, the ill-fated Ralph and Norton, died in 2007 at the same aquarium (all six were flown from Taiwan by jumbo jet). Japan has several more, and a South Korean aquarium is shopping for a specimen.
For now, Ah is the star attraction at Taiwan's aquarium, drawing "oohs" and (yes) "ahhs" from excited Taiwanese tykes every time he circles into view.
Back in his office after feeding time, Ah's keeper, Liu, admits to some second thoughts about cramping the whale shark's style.
"Whale sharks are so big, and they swim such long distances," he said. "So to put one in a little tank it's like it's doing time."
"I think it [Ah] is smart. It knows me and swims to me," Liu said affectionately. "So it's hard to make the decision — to let it go or have it stay here. I still think about it sometimes."