On Monday an Ecuadorian judge sentenced the crew of a Chinese ship to prison terms ranging from 1-4 years for possession and transport of protected species within the Galapagos Marine Reserve. In addition, the crew of the vessel was fined US$5.9 million as reparation for the damages to the marine ecosystem. The vessel was confiscated and, if sold, proceeds will benefit the Galapagos National Park. The cargo vessel was caught earlier this month illegally transiting through the Galapagos Marine Reserve with a hull filled with 6,623 sharks, including juvenile hammerhead and silky sharks.

Ecuador’s Minister of Environment Tarsicio Granizo emphasized that this sentence is in accordance with the government’s zero tolerance policy toward environmental crimes, and that the case sets an important precedent for the country and the world.

Yesterday Ecuador’s National Assembly released a resolution to further emphasize the country’s commitment to prevent illegal fishing within its territorial waters.

“The only way to stop illegal fishing of protected species is to inflict serious penalties on those caught in the act, especially the boat owners. All too often there are small fines and a slap on the wrist,” said Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid.

The cargo vessel, Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, was detected and tracked using the Galapagos National Park Service’s new AIS monitoring system—procured and installed by WildAidWWF and Sea Shepherd. Galapagos park rangers and Ecuadorian Navy officials intercepted the vessel 34.5 miles off the coast of the island of San Cristobal and arrested its crew of 20. Upon inspecting its hold, they found 300 tons of frozen sharks and fish.

In response to the sentencing, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that “the Chinese government opposes all forms of illegal fishing and adopts a zero-tolerance attitude towards illegal trading in endangered wildlife and the products derived from them. We will not condone illegal fishing in any form.”

The spokesperson said during a press briefing Tuesday that “the Chinese government is launching its own investigation and verification. Any illegal actions, if found, will be severely punished by international law and China’s domestic laws.”

She further stated that “China has noted the sentence delivered by the Ecuadorian side. We hope that Ecuador will deal with this case in a just and unbiased way based on the objective facts and guarantee the legitimate and lawful rights and interests of the Chinese crew.”

Fins from up to 73 million sharks are used for shark fin soup each year, including those from endangered species. To stop shark finning in the Galapagos, WildAid works with park rangers and the Ecuadorian Navy to monitor the vast reserve. This is the first interdiction of a foreign vessel since the installation of the new AIS software this year and the announcement last year of a marine sanctuary at Darwin and Wolf to protect sharks.

Galapagos National Park Director Walter Bustos said that the ship was the largest vessel ever caught in the reserve’s boundaries. He further stated that the enforcement of environmental policies in Ecuador through this case has created greater global awareness for the problems faced in our oceans daily, which may inspire greater action on an international level against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, known by the acronym IUU.

WildAid also works in China to decrease demand for shark fins through targeted celebrity-led awareness campaigns. Our Say No to Shark Fin campaign previously aired on TV, video boards in subway and train stations, airports, and university campuses featuring Yao Ming, sports icon David Beckham, actor and director Jiang Wen, and actress Maggie Q. These campaigns have contributed to a reported 50-70% decrease in Chinese shark fin consumption.

WildAid applauds both Ecuador and China for their firm stances and swift actions in this case.