Korean fishing boats damaging NZ reputation: report

A joint ministerial inquiry has accused Korean  foreign charter fishing vessel (FCV) operators of mistreating their crews and damaging New Zealand's international reputation.

"Most of the incidents reported that are causing damage to New Zealand's reputation appear to have occurred on Korean flagged vessels," the report of the joint ministerial inquiry into FCVs said.

"The names of certain Korean vessels and owners came up repeatedly in this context. The alleged abuse is against predominantly Indonesian crew members."

Few complaints were laid against other nations' FCVs.

The government set up the inquiry after allegations of human rights and labour abuses aboard the ships which catch much of New Zealand's deep ocean and Maori fish quota.

The three person panel said the New Zealand public was entitled to assume that all crew on fishing vessels operating in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), regardless of nationality, had safe working conditions, suitable crew accommodation, adequate clean water and food, fair levels of pay and protection from abuse.

But they had heard concern about the recent mistreatment of crews on "certain FCVs operating in New Zealand's EEZ.

"There was widespread agreement that recent allegations of breaches of safety and labour standards put both New Zealand's international standing and the reputation of the New Zealand fishing industry at risk."

Dealing with fair and equitable labour standards and workplace conditions, the inquiry said all allegations related to Korea.

"It is clear to the panel that there have been serious breaches of the code of practice. It is equally clear that the response of both the industry and government agencies has been inadequate."

It called for an end to "exploitative practices" and a clear message that they will not be tolerated in New Zealand.

The report said there was no doubt that allegations of exploitative labour practices and sub-standard working conditions have been damaging to New Zealand's reputation as a progressive and fair-minded nation.

It was clear "a small number of operators of foreign flagged FCVs have been mistreating their crews and acting in disregard of New Zealand's laws.

"These activities have put at risk New Zealand's standing in the international community and the reputation of the seafood industry," the inquiry report said.

"Although government has gone to considerable lengths in recent years to enforce New Zealand standards on board FCVs, it is clear that additional measures now need to be put in place to prevent the exploitation of foreign workers on FCVs, to safeguard New Zealand's international reputation and to protect the long-term interests of the fishing industry and 'Brand New Zealand'," the report said.

The report noted that New Zealand was negotiating a free trade agreement with Korea and that in fisheries "significant differences" remain between the two countries.

Cited in the report were 13 Korean flagged FCVs - out of 21 - operated by Sanford, Auckland, United Fisheries of Christchurch, Northland Deepwater Partnership, Southern Storm Fishing of Christchurch and South East Resources  of Christchurch.

The panel said there was a role for FCVs in New Zealand, saying it allowed quota owners the chance to make commercial decisions on the most profitable methods of harvesting their quota.

"The fishing industry is risky and, in the EEZ, requires large amounts of investment (whether purchasing or leasing a vessel)."

They say FCVs make a useful contribution to New Zealand's economy, but that "this should not be at the expense of New Zealand's international reputation."

Primary Industries Minister David Carter and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said in response the government will take a stronger line on FCVs.

"The report is clear that the issues are not widespread in the New Zealand commercial fishing industry, but they are serious where they occur and need to be addressed in a co-ordinated manner, backed by legislative change," Carter said.

The inquiry makes 15 recommendations and the government has decided to act quickly on the first six.

"The recommendations include updating the code of practice and strengthening the immigration approval process - both of which will help ensure better conditions for workers on FCVs," says Wilkinson.

She said fishing companies have to show that the code is being followed.

"This is a significant move as it puts the onus on those companies, rather than the Department of Labour, which currently has to prove the code has been breached."

The Department of Labour is also to strengthen monitoring and enforcement of FCVs and increase the frequency and thoroughness of inspections.

The Ministry of Fisheries is to strengthen monitoring and enforcement of FCVs, including placing an observer on all FCVs fishing in New Zealand waters and considering non-fisheries offences when making FCV registration decisions.

Maritime New Zealand is to strengthen enforcement of FCV compliance with maritime safety standards.

Sanford welcomed the "excellent work" in the ministerial report.

"Sanford has had a policy of 100 percent observer coverage on its charter vessels for the last 10 years and has encouraged other operators to follow suit," managing director Eric Barratt said in a statement.

"The increased accountability and traceability of requirements and actions of the New Zealand charter vessel operators should prevent the unsatisfactory actions that have apparently been occurring on some charter vessels."

The Seafood Industry Council, an umbrella organisation of all fishing companies, said it called for the inquiry.

Chief executive Peter Bodeker said they were pleased ministers had acted on some recommendations immediately.

"The inquiry's findings will impact on some of our members' operations and it is important they have time to work through this, alongside the relevant government agencies, to consider and implement any changes that are needed," said Bodeker.

The Maori Party saying they had taken "a hard line" on the issue.

MP Te Ururoa Flavell said they had called for the highest international human rights standard.

"It is great to see such progress has been made.

"We feel that the recommendations contained within this report, such as requiring that a New Zealand observer be placed on all FCVs; that crew wages be paid into New Zealand bank accounts; and that all crews and operators are proactively informed of their rights and responsibilities, are a huge leap towards ensuring we honour the human rights of these workers," Flavell said.