8 Sep 2020

Japan to resume search for crew of capsized cattle ship

9:15 am on 8 September 2020

An aircraft and two patrol boats will resume the search for missing crew members, including two New Zealanders, from the capsized cattle ship in the South China Sea, the Japanese Coast Guard says.

Japan Coast Guard Patrol Ship Kudaka conducts a search operation of a Panamanian freighter Gulf Livestock 1 which sent a distress signal off of Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture on Sep. 3, 2020.

Japan Coast Guard Patrol Ship Kudaka conducts a search operation of a Panamanian freighter Gulf Livestock 1 which sent a distress signal off of Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture on 3 September. Photo: AFP

The search for the missing crew, including New Zealanders Scott Harris and Lochie Bellerby, was suspended due to bad weather on Saturday, when Typhoon Haishen was headed towards southwestern Japan.

So far, two crew members have been rescued, while another died after being found unconscious on Friday. Their ship, the Gulf Livestock 1, had sent a distress call from the west of Amami Oshima island in southwestern Japan last Wednesday as Typhoon Maysak lashed the area with strong winds and heavy seas.

Yesterday afternoon an aircraft searched the waters around the islands off the south west of Japan but nothing was found. Today an aircraft and two patrol boats will continue the search.

The ship had been carrying 43 crew members and nearly 6000 cattle when it left Napier's port in New Zealand on 14 August.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor told Morning Report New Zealand does not have jurisdiction over what happened to the ship and would rely on investigations from the Panamanian sector, and would work with Japan.

O'Connor said he supported the move by the Ministry for Primary Industries to suspend live stock exports following the capsize.

"We need to have more indications and more clarity before putting any more stock or any more New Zealanders on a boat like this. We need to know that the boat is seaworthy and the competency of the crew means they're not going to go into such unsafe situations again."

There were no indications the boat was unseaworthy, he said. "It may have been a judgement and there may have been pressure that caused the captain to go through the eye of the storm. Clearly a very unfortunate decision."

Another boat travelling to China decided to change course and go round the typhoon, he said.

O'Connor said New Zealand had oversight on the care of animals on the ship, in having stock managers and veterinarians on board.

The next vessel was due to take animals from New Zealand for export in about 10 days and may be delayed "until we get some of the answers".

The government was mindful of the pressure and was talking to exporters on the options if it did not have the safety assurances, he said.

"I'm sure they have the ability to keep those stock in quarantine for another week or two - it's not ideal."

Livestock agent Bill Sweeney warned the temporary ban on live cattle exports could have huge ramifications for farmers.

"This is an absolute tragedy, our thoughts go out to the families ... there's nothing worse than to have had this happened.

"But you've also, in my mind, got to put it in context with thousands of boats that travelled backwards and forwards to China and all places that export. In 40 years in the industry that I'm aware of this is the first time this has ever happened."

Sweeney, the general manager of New Zealand Farmers Livestock, said 26,000 heifers are in quarantine waiting to be exported.

"It's a massive amount of pressure at the moment because I'm not sure what's going to happen to those cattle."

There would not be enough capacity in the local market to take them all and many would go to slaughter, he said.

"I would say it would have huge ramifications for exporters and farmers alike, let alone livestock companies that are involved in the transactions in selling these cattle. A lot of farmers structure their business around live export."

During the drought around 20,000 heifers were exported, and would have earned half the amount on the local market - if they had been able to be sold at all, he said.

On animal welfare concerns in the live export industry, Sweeney said it had "tidied up its act hugely in last 15 years" with mortality rates of stock on ships reduced to 0.1 percent.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is leading a review of New Zealand's live stock export rules. A conditional ban on the export of cattle, sheep, goats and deer for slaughter was introduced in 2007. The current review is looking at strengthening existing standards to a total or conditional ban on some or all parts of the livestock export trade.​

O'Connor said MPI had been due to deliver its advice just before the Covid-19 pandemic occurred, and it is now be likely to be dealt with by the incoming government after the election.

"We do need to ensure if we put people or animals on boats they will be safe and they will get to their destination," he said.

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