Conservationists are up in arms about the latest tourist attraction in the eastern Chinese city of Yantai, which features not one but five Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in a metal-clad aquarium.
The owners of the nautilus-shaped Haichang Whale shark aquarium are understandably proud that their facility is the only one in the world to feature five of these gentle leviathans swimming together in the same tank, but conservationists are decrying the fact that the sharks are housed in a tank much too small for them.
The five sharks are housed in a tank only 88 x 52' in size. To place things in perspective, each shark is capable of reaching to a size of more than 40' and for further perspective, the Georgia Aquarium in the United States houses four Whale sharks in a tank ten times bigger than the one in Yantai.
According to Hua Ning, a campaigner at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Beijing: "I am quite pessimistic about the fate of these Whale sharks. This aquarium only wants to make a profit and are using these creatures as a publicity gimmick. The Whale shark is the largest fish in the world, and it needs a vast area of ocean to swim in."
She also questioned whether the aquarium possesses adequate expertise to provide the Whale sharks with appropriate care. "The problem is that we do not have any ocean animal protection laws in China," she added.
According to Xiao Bing, an environmental activist in Xiamen, "eeping them in a tiny space will put a lot of pressure on them and there will be corresponding consequences. In other countries, they prefer to take visitors out to sea in order to see large whales and fish. This is a low-cost way of enjoying nature, and mainland investors should look at this industry. But at the moment, the big companies and the government just focus on promoting tourism and making money."
Whale sharks almost always do poorly in captivity, surviving for a tiny fraction of their natural lifespan. One previous study of 16 Whale sharks maintained at the Okinawa Expo Aquarium between 1980 and 1998 recorded an average lifespan of 16 months for the captive individuals. This is in stark contrast to the 70 to 100 years estimated for wild sharks.
A spokesman for the aquarium said: "We kept a Whale shark alive for more than three years at another aquarium in Dalian, so we have confidence and experience.
"We have five aquariums across China and we wanted something a bit different for this one to boost the interest of tourists. I cannot say where we got the Whale sharks from, or how much they cost, but in China we do not regard them as an endangered species."
The 5,000 square metre aquarium is the jewel in the crown of a multi-million pound spa, hotel and leisure complex. It opened its doors to tourists in late September this year, and approximately 30,000 people have visited the aquarium since then.
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