A ranger inspects part of the Chinese vessel's illegal haul from the Galapagos Islands.
A ranger inspects part of the Chinese vessel's illegal haul from the Galapagos Islands.

Shark fishers jailed and fined

THE captain and crew of a Chinese fishing ship have been jailed and fined $7.5million just weeks after shocking photos emerged of their ship's hull filled with endangered sharks.

The 20 men were sentenced to between one and four years jail in Ecuador after authorities found 272 tonnes of frozen marine animals, apparently from the Galapagos Marine Reserve, including protected sharks.

The World Heritage Site is believed to have the world's highest known abundance of sharks.

Among the illegal cargo on the ship were hammerheads and threatened silky sharks, as well as young and baby sharks, most likely to feed the demand for black market items such as shark fin soup.

Marine ecologist Pelayo Salinas boarded the vessel with Coast Guard staff.

He said of the haul: "There were thousands, if not tens of thousands, of sharks.”

Judge Alexandra Arroyo announced this week that the captain of the Fu Yuab Yu Leng 999 would serve four years in jail.

Three assistants got three years and 16 crew members one year.

On August 13 Mr Salinas was on his way back from a 12-day research mission on a Galapagos National Park patrol ship when the captain spotted a nearby vessel on the ship's radar, National Geographic reported.

Because access to the reserve is restricted, the crew radioed the ship but received no response. They tried once more, but again got silence.

So Mr Salinas and an Ecuadorean Navy officer who was on board jumped in a 4m inflatable boat and gave pursuit.

Fishing in the reserve is illegal and they suspected the ship of carrying illegal Chinese fisherman who were in the waters to supply the country's demand for black market items like shark fin soup.

However the inflatable dingy proved insufficient to catch the boat and soon a navy helicopter and Coast Guard boat were dispatched, along with Galapagos National Park rangers. Once they were on board the Chinese vessel, what they saw astounded them.

"There were thousands, if not tens of thousands, of sharks,” Mr Salinas recalled. "This is going to be historic. The biggest seizure of sharks in the history of the Galapagos, for sure.”

Demand in Asia for foods like shark fin soup is fuelling the murky world of maritime poaching and illegal fishing.

Shark fin soup is made up of tasteless strips of cartilage or noodles from the fins and is thought by some to provide benefits such as increased virility and longer life.

Despite increased efforts from international authorities to dispel the myth and clamp down on the trade of shark fins which has dampened sales in recent years, demand for such items still threatens a number of species world wide, conservationists say.

As a result, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has said about a third of open ocean sharks are threatened with extinction.

In 2015 a Queensland recreational fisherman was fined $7750 after being caught with more than 3200 shark fins suspected of being destined for the black market, raising questions over Australia's involvement in the trade.

- Nick Whigham