The Ecuadorean navy made a shocking discovery earlier this month when, at the request of Galapagos National Park officials, it investigated a Chinese-flagged vessel cruising through the marine reserve off the Galapagos Islands.

They found more than 6,600 illegally caught sharks lying in piles onboard the vessel known as the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999.

Most were hammerhead sharks, but the massive killing included silky, thresher and mako sharks as well. All these species are off-limits to commercial fishermen within the marine reserve, according to NPR and Reuters.

The Chinese vessel known as the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was confiscated by Ecuador. Photo: Courtesy of the Ecuadorean Ministry of the Environment

After a brief trial, Ecuadorean judge, Dr. Alexandra Arroyo, on Monday convicted the 20 fishermen of possessing and transporting protected species, and handed down a sharp sentence: a $5.9 million fine and one to four years in jail, as reported by the Ministry of Environment.

“This sentence is in line with the policy of zero tolerance for disrespect of our sovereignty and our most elementary principles as a nation, since Ecuador recognizes nature as the subject of Rights," Tarsicio Granizo, the Minister of Environment, said in a statement. "This ruling marks a precedent in environmental legal matters, at the country level and in the region."

Among the massacred sharks were hammerheads, threshers and makos. Photo: Courtesy of the Ecuadorean Ministry of the Environment

The government said it will confiscate the vessel and discard the sharks into the ocean, according to Reuters.

More from NPR:

Fishing of any kind is banned throughout much of the area, which is home to one of the world’s largest marine reserves. UNESCO says the world heritage site comprises more than 50,000 square miles of protected waters, and, according to National Geographic, it has “the highest abundance of sharks known in the world.”

“The Galápagos Islands have extraordinary ecological value, and also economic value,” President Rafael Correa said last year after adding a new sanctuary to the reserve. “[It’s a] wonderful world where as many species as possible are preserved for the enjoyment and knowledge of future generations.”

Yet the global trade in shark fins remains a burgeoning business, partly driven by efforts “to satisfy the expensive Asian dish shark fin soup,” Costa Rica marine biologist Geiner Golfin told Quartz. That’s despite some attempts from Beijing in recent years — laid out earlier this year by NPR’s Anthony Kuhn — to cut down on the trade.

"We will not condone illegal fishing in any form," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday, according to NPR. But she added that "judging from the information gleaned from the two sides, there has been no evidence proving that the vessel was engaged in fishing and transporting in Ecuadorean waters."

She also said it was true the vessel was in the marine reserve but was "unaware of the relevant rules," adding that Beijing plans to investigate further and hopes Ecuadorean authorities "will deal with this case in a just and unbiased way based on the objective facts.”

Read more about fishing from ASN