A ship carrying two New Zealand crew members and more than 5800 cows has gone missing in a typhoon in the East China Sea.
Earlier, Japan's press agency reported that a cargo ship carrying dozens of crew members, including two from New Zealand, issued a distress signal in the middle of a typhoon.
The agency, NHK says, a Panamanian-registered cargo ship issued a distress signal in waters to the west of Amami Oshima Island in southwestern Japan.
The Japan Coast Guard says the distress signal came from the "Gulf Livestock 1" which is believed to be carrying 43 crew members - the majority of which were from the Philippines.
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) Winston Peters has confirmed two New Zealanders were onboard the ship.
Two are also believed to be Australian, according to Maritime New Zealand. One is a vet and the other a stockman.
The Ministry of Primary Industries has confirmed the ship left Napier last month with an Animal Welfare Export Certificate allowing for 5867 cattle. It says none of its staff were onboard.
The vessel was expected to reach the Port of Jingtang in Tangshan, China, 17 days from its departure on 14 August.
The Coast Guard has sent out patrol ships to search the area, which is affected by Typhoon Maysak.
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor has been made aware of the missing ship.
"I very much hope all the crew on board are safe. My thoughts are with their families, this will be a very difficult time for them as the search continues."
He said officials from MPI were working closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the exporter and he was awaiting an update.
A spokesperson for the minister's office said because this was an overseas incident, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs is the lead department.
In a statement, Peters said MFAT and the New Zealand Embassy in Tokyo were working with local authorities following the ship's distress signal.
Peters said the ministry was providing consular assistance to the families of the New Zealanders involved, and its thoughts were with them.
Maritime New Zealand says it will be involved in an investigation only if the New Zealanders on board were employed by a local company or government body.
It is trying to find out who employed the New Zealanders on board.
Maritime New Zealand said it would investigate under the Health and Safety in the Workplace legislation, which covers any New Zealander working overseas who is employed in this country.
According to Baird Maritime, the Philippine Navy had helped the vessel in July when it suffered an engine breakdown near its maritime boundary.
It had reportedly been undergoing sea trials at the time. After repairs, it headed towards Australia.
Cattle export industry under review
The incident comes as the government is reviewing the practice - a move triggered last year when New Zealand and Australian cattle being exported to Sri Lanka died.
Options being considered range from improving current systems to a total ban on livestock exports.
As part of a nine-week consultation period, more than 3500 submissions were made.
The Ministry for Primary Industries is now preparing advice for the minister of agriculture about the feedback.
In the meantime, live exports are able to continue under the existing regulations.
The number of live cattle shipped overseas has already surpassed last year's total.
Cattle shipments to China make up the majority of the live export trade - in 2019 nearly 32,300 cows were shipped to the country.
That has already been surpassed this year, by the end of last month live cattle exports to China reached 39,700.
Figures from Stats NZ show the value of the 2020 cattle exports is $141 million.