Thousands of illegally caught sharks were discovered on each of 15 Chinese fishing boats during a dawn raid Saturday conducted jointly by the Timor-Leste National Police and the activist group Sea Shepherd.
The Sea Shepherd vessel Ocean Warrior spent two weeks hunting for the Pingtan Marine Enterprises fleet and found it 93 miles south of Timor-Leste, the Asian island country located between Australia and Indonesia.
Sea Shepherd captured footage showing the fleet hauling in nets full of sharks, some of which are protected internationally, and showed it to the Timor-Leste police, according to The Guardian Australia.
"We found thousands and thousands of sharks on every single vessel," Sea Shepherd campaign leader Gary Stokes told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "They were setting bottom gillnets that were basically weighted to the sea bed. They were supposed to be catching fish, but it was very, very clear that they were just targeting sharks."
Shark fin is considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Conservationists are concerned demand for it is fuelling illegal trafficking and driving threatened species to extinction.
Stokes said he met with Jose Ramos Horta, the former president and former prime minister of Timor Leste, who is agitating for strong action to be taken against the crew.
Stokes said Sea Shepherd was monitoring the fleet, making sure they did not flee. He said they appeared to start moving overnight, but under the authority of the police, the Ocean Warrior threatened to damage their communication equipment with a water cannon and they stopped.
It remains unclear what type of punishment will be forthcoming.
Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that the Timor-Leste government held an "emergency meeting" Wednesday to discuss the latest incident. A new prime minister of the country is expected to be sworn in Friday.
"This kind of thing was happening several months ago and now it has happened again," Nelson Belo, executive director of Fundasaun Mahein, a nonprofit that monitors maritime security policy for the country, told ABC. He said the fishing license for the fleet should immediately be suspended.
Last month, the same fleet was found with 6,600 illegally caught sharks in Galapagos National Park. The fishermen were fined $5.9 million and given jail terms of one to four years.
Read more about fishing from ASN