Major fishing industry inquiry unveiled

SEA TRAGEDY: Survivors of the fishing trawler Oyang 70. Six men died when the trawler sank.
SEA TRAGEDY: Survivors of the fishing trawler Oyang 70. Six men died when the trawler sank.

A ministerial inquiry into New Zealand's troubled fishing industry is to examine whether alleged human rights abuses of Asian crews aboard foreign fishing boats are damaging the country's international reputation and threatening trading relationships.

Minister of Fisheries Phil Heatley and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson ordered the inquiry following Fairfax Media revelations this year of virtual slave-like labour conditions inflicted on around 2000 mainly Asian men working 27 foreign charter vessels (FCVs), most of them aging Korean boats fishing Maori quota.

In a statement, the two ministers said the inquiry will look at the application of the labour, immigration, maritime safety and fisheries laws around the use and operation of fishing vessels, particularly FCVs.

The terms of reference also call for the inquiry to inquiry into "any international reputation risks associated with the use of FCVs (and) any trade access risks associated with the use of FCVs".

The other terms call for a study on the economic factors behind FCVs and whether they deliver the "greatest overall benefit to New Zealand's economy and to quota owners".

They are also charged with finding whether "acceptable and equitable labour standards including safe working environments" are, or can be, applied on all fishing vessels operating in New Zealand's fisheries.

Heatley said the terms were deliberately broad in scope.

"We must ensure the use of all fishing vessels operating in EEZ [exclusive economic zone] waters supports government objectives. This includes protecting New Zealand's international reputation as a world-leading fisheries manager," says Heatley.

A previous Labour government Labour Minister, Paul Swain, will chair the panel.

Current Broadcasting Commission chair Neil Walter - who was also Administrator of Tokelau - will be on the panel with a director of accounting firm KPMG, Sarah McGrath.

The document setting up the inquiry said it will look at individual examples and situations of FCVs, but says "it is not the purpose of this inquiry to investigate any particular situation or incident.

"If the inquiry obtains specific information it believes should be investigated by a relevant authority it will be forwarded to the relevant authority for its consideration."

The inquiry is ordered to "proceed as it thinks fit to obtain relevant information, including expert services, to assist it to examine issues covered by the inquiry".

The panel has to produce a report by February 24.

Earlier this month a University of Auckland Business School study found disturbing levels of inhumane conditions and abuse on FCVs

Senior lecturer Dr Christina Stringer, PhD candidate Glenn Simmons and fisheries consultant and former skipper Daren Coulston interviewed crews and families in two Asian countries and obtained dozens of files using the Official Information Act to expose the operations.

They also obtained contracts, false time sheets, bank statements and bonus sheets showing that New Zealand officials were routinely and systematically lied to over wages and conditions.

They found FCVs engaged in illegal dumping and high grading - throwing quota and by-catch fish overboard in the hope of getting higher value commercial catches later.

The report Not in New Zealand's waters, surely? focused on the operations of Sajo Oyang Corporation of Korea which last year had six men killed when the 30 year old FCV Oyang 70 sank off the Otago coast.

Crew from a replacement crew Oyang 75, have walked off the ship in Lyttelton objecting to poor wages and abuse.

Sajo Oyang Corporation spokesman Glenn Inwood has yet to react to the university study, but following a Sunday Star-Times preview called the study "ludicrous and bizarre".

The university report includes statements from sailors and witnesses.

"Officers are vicious bastards ... factory manager just rapped this 12 kg stainless steel pan over his head, splits the top of his head, blood pissing out everywhere...," one informant told the university.

"I told the Master can't leave him cause he's bleeding all over the squid. He said 'oh no no he's Indonesian no touchy no touchy'... Took him to the bridge and third mate said 'Indonesian no stitchy no stitchy'. I ended up giving over 26 stitches ... bit of a mess."

Fairfax Media