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QUITO (Reuters) - An Ecuadorean judge has sentenced 20 Chinese crew members to up to four years in prison for illegally fishing off the Galapagos Islands, where they were caught with 6,600 sharks aboard.

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 members 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 located about 1000 km (620 miles) 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.

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; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by W Simon)

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Reuters