QUITO (Reuters) - An Ecuadorean judge has jailed 20 Chinese fishermen for up to four years for illegally fishing off the Galapagos Islands, where they were caught with 6,600 sharks.
The Chinese-flagged ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was apprehended in mid-August with some 300 tonnes of near-extinct or endangered species, including hammerhead sharks.
The crew received jail time of between one and four years, the judge said late on Sunday. They were also fined a total of $5.9 million.
Ecuador's foreign ministry said it had sent a formal protest to China over the presence of ships near the Galapagos, which inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
It reported earlier this month that China's ambassador in Quito, Wang Yulin, said his country wanted to take all measures necessary to "put an end to these illicit practices."
The islands are about 1,000 km (620 miles) west of Ecuador's Pacific coast.
The Environment Ministry said the Chinese vessel was fishing in the Galapagos' marine reserve.
The boat will be taken over by Ecuador and the dead animals thrown out to sea, the government said on Monday.
Shark fin is a status symbol for many Chinese, prized as nourishment and consumed in a shredded jelly-like soup. Restaurants across China serve it at traditional banquets, despite a 2014 crackdown by President Xi Jinping on extravagance and a ban on serving the delicacy at official functions.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday China opposed any form of illegal fishing, and was paying great attention to the case.
However, she said there was no evidence the ship was fishing in Ecuadorian waters but that the ship had transited through the Galapagos protected zone without permission as it did not understand Ecuadorian rules.
China hopes Ecuador can fairly handle the case and protect the legitimate rights of the Chinese nationals, Hua added.
Centenarian tortoises and blue-footed boobies inhabit the Galapagos alongside some 18,000 islanders who earn a living from fishing and the tourism industry.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by W Simon and Nick Macfie)