10 May 2018

Stalled NZ phosphate shipment sets sail after a year

4:11 pm on 10 May 2018

A shipment of phosphate has finally left a port in South Africa, a year after it was detained en route to New Zealand.

The NM Cherry Blossom was carrying 50,000 tonnes of phosphate rock when it  was stopped at Port Elizabeth.

The NM Cherry Blossom was carrying 50,000 tonnes of phosphate rock when it was stopped at Port Elizabeth. Photo: Supplied / M.L. Jacobs MarineTraffic.com

The ship, NM Cherry Blossom, was carrying 55,000 tonnes of phosphate rock bound for Mt Maunganui when it was stopped while refuelling at Port Elizabeth in May of last year.

The phosphate had originally been bought by New Zealand company Balance Agri Nutrients, which said the load of fertiliser was definitely not coming to them.

It is understood to be heading to Mauritius, but the final destination of its cargo is unclear.

A South African court found the fertiliser belonged to independence campaigners in the desert territory of Western Sahara, where it was mined. It ruled the Moroccan shippers of the product had no legal right to it, saying Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara was illegal.

The court agreed with independence activists, who cited a European Court ruling saying Western Saharan products should not be regarded as Moroccan goods in trade deals.

A South African court subsequently ordered a sale of the product, with the proceeds going to the Western Saharan independence movement.

No bids were forthcoming however, almost certainly because the Moroccan authorities vowed to go to court against any purchasers from a third country where the fertiliser might ultimately end up.

The deadlock dragged on for a year, during which the owners and charterers of the ship were known to be getting desperate because of the high costs of keeping a bulk carrier idle for a year and paying expensive berthage fees.

Their insurers were understood to be equally alarmed.

Both sides agreed that in the end the cargo was bought by the ship's charterers, UK shipping company Furness Withy. It would then be free to sail the ship away and eventually resume normal trading.

The Moroccan company said after buying the fertiliser in a court sale, Furness Withy sold it to them for a nominal sum of $US1.

The ship itself is heading for Mauritius to be cleaned of barnacles and other sea life that would have grown thick on the hull after being stationary in the water for 12 months.

Its future after that is unknown.

The Moroccan phosphate company OCP claimed it as a victory, saying it proves the South African court procedures were illegal. On the other hand, independence campaigners said the court verdict proved their case was sound, queried the $1 claim, and vowed to take similar legal action in other countries.

About 70 percent of all New Zealand phosphate comes from Western Sahara. New Zealand Phosphate companies planned to carry on trading, saying a political dispute over Western Sahara's sovereignty should be settled by the United Nations and should not be foisted upon ordinary New Zealand trading firms.

They are bringing in the product in on long range ships that can get to New Zealand without refuelling, to safeguard against similar seizures.

Western Sahara is a piece of desert land of a similar size to New Zealand. It was a Spanish colony but was taken over by Morocco in 1975, a move that was condemned by the UN.

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's official position on Western Sahara is it wants "genuine self determination" for the people who live there.

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