20 Chinese crew members have been sentenced to up to four years in prison by an Ecuadorean court for illegally poaching in the protected waters of the Galapagos Islands, where they were caught with 6,600 sharks aboard.
The Chinese-flagged ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was apprehended earlier this month with around 300 tons of near-extinct or endangered species, including hammerhead sharks.
The crew members received jail time of between one and four years, the presiding judge said late on Sunday. They were also fined a total of US$5.9 million.
Ecuador's foreign ministry sent a formal protest to China over the presence of ships near the Galapagos, which inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and is seen as a “living laboratory” of inestimable worth to biologists. The Ecuadorean Environment Ministry said the Chinese vessel was fishing in the Galapagos' marine reserve.
A mixture of warm and cold ocean currents plus the islands' isolated location 620 miles west of Ecuador's Pacific coast make the location ideal for about 3,000 species of fish and 34 different species of shark.
Last year, the country created a new 15,000-square mile marine sanctuary to protect the world's greatest concentration of sharks, which was added to several other smaller reserves and an 80,000-square mile marine reserve created in 1998.
The area had come under threat due to climate change, industrial trawlers and illicit shark fin hunters.
Sharks play a crucial role in the biodiversity-rich Galapagos and their elimination can cause entire marine ecosystems to collapse.
Shark fin soup is a traditional luxury soup dating back to the Song Dynasty of 960-1279 and symbolizes generosity, good fortune and wealth. The dish is usually served at banquets, weddings and New Year celebrations throughout Asia and is considered highly beneficial in traditional Chinese medicine.
Since China and Vietnam introduced market reforms in the late 1980s, demand for shark fins boomed as shark fishermen sought the expensive fins, depleting shark populations from West Africa to Southeast Asia.
Eventually, the international shark fin trafficking network set their sights on the Ecuadorean coast as a potential replacement for overexploited waters abroad, setting off a years-long battle between authorities in the South American nation and poachers.
“We've said many times that the Chinese government opposes all forms of illegal fishing,” China's foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said during a news briefing that took place after the trial ended.
“On the issue of protecting endangered wildlife, the Chinese government adopts a zero-tolerance attitude towards illegal trading in endangered wildlife and the products derived from them. The Chinese government always instructs its fishing businesses to operate in accordance with laws and regulations and protect the marine eco-environment. China believes that relevant departments in Ecuador will deal with this case in accordance with law and guarantee the lawful rights and interests of the Chinese personnel and enterprises.”
The boat will be taken over by the state and the dead animals thrown out to sea, the Ecuadorean government said on Monday.
Centenarian tortoises and blue-footed boobies inhabit the Galapagos alongside some 18,000 islanders who earn a living from fishing and the tourism industry.