Government seizes Korean trawler

SEIZED: The Melilla 201 is expected to cost more to sell than it would make in a sale.
SEIZED: The Melilla 201 is expected to cost more to sell than it would make in a sale.

A rusty, nearly 50-year-old vermin-infested South Korean fishing ship has become government property.

One-time foreign charter vessel Melilla 201 was seized after its officers were convicted of illegal fishing including dumping fish at sea.

Marine sources say the 70 metre-long trawler will probably cost the New Zealand government more to sell than they can make with any possible sale.

Docked in Dunedin's inner harbour, it was valued a year ago at $1 million, but owners Taejin Fisheries Co of Busan owe 93 Indonesian crew $4.5 million in wages.

Taxpayers have paid over $50,000 in berthage fees since its owners gave up on it. It has also paid to clean up the ship which became infested with rats, cockroaches and lice.

The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) posted notices in newspapers today saying Melilla 201 had become forfeit.

It said any person claiming an interest in the property had 35 working days from October 13 to "apply for relief from the effect of forfeiture".

In the precedent-rich world of admiralty law, this means if the vessel is sold proceeds are then divided up between those owed money.

The notice said that last week the Christchurch District Court convicted master Kyung Jin Kim, vice captain Soon Chor Hong and factory manager Il Son of unlawfully dumping fish at sea in breach of the quota management system. Hong was also found guilty of making false or misleading trawl catch returns.

The three did not turn up to court and so have not been individually sentenced.

The court ordered the forfeiture of the ship.

Melilla 201 was one of the foreign charter vessels at the centre of extensive human rights and employment abuses highlighted over the last two years. It led the Government to changing the rules requiring all ships to fly the New Zealand flag and meet New Zealand conditions.

It had been operated under charter for Christchurch's United Fisheries Ltd, which later said they had no interest in the vessel as it had lost its licence to fish.

During the trial, Judge Alistair Garland heard evidence from five Indonesian crew about the vessel when it was operating between July and October 2011 off the West Coast.

It was targeting barracuda, hoki, blue warehou, silver warehou, and ling.

Witnesses said small and damaged fish had been discarded during the trips. The fish is of lesser value but is meant to be landed and reported as part of the quota system.

Discarding and not reporting the fish means that higher value fish is caught to replace it.

Melilla 201's sister ship, 203, is also docked in New Zealand under a civil seizure order over unpaid wages.

Another Korean charter vessel, Oyang 75, is also facing forfeiture.

Sajo Oyang Corporation had bought in the modern ship to replace Oyang 70 which sank in 2010 off the Otago coast with the loss of six men.

Oyang 75 was heavily fined and ordered forfeited to the Crown over numerous environmental and maritime offences.

The forfeit has been challenged and Oyang 75 is under a bond, and operating out of Mauritius.

Under international maritime law, MPI could have Oyang 75 seized in Port Louis and sailed back here for auction.