Probe exposes fishing underbelly

TROUBLED WATERS: The crew of the Oyang 75 fled alleging abuse and its Korean officers face charges connected to fish dumping.
TROUBLED WATERS: The crew of the Oyang 75 fled alleging abuse and its Korean officers face charges connected to fish dumping.

A ministerial inquiry sparked by a Sunday Star-Times investigation reveals serious fears about fishing practices in NZ waters. Michael Field reports.

Decrepit foreign fishing vessels crewed with sweatshop Asian labour are destroying New Zealand's international reputation for safe and sustainable food and are ruining our ability to catch our own fish.

These claims come in submissions to a joint ministerial inquiry into the use of foreign charter vessels (FCVs) that take 62% of the deep ocean catch and almost all of the Maori fish quota.

Their crews pay no tax, but are covered by the Accident Compensation Corporation. The vessels ignore safe-ship standards as well as employment, health and safety laws. Crew on FCVs are paid a quarter of the rates paid on New Zealand-flagged boats.

"FCVs act largely in a regulatory and compliance vacuum which leads to undesirable exploitative practices and a distorted playing field for New Zealand crew vessels," said Nelson-based Talley's Group Ltd.

FCVs were having a "punitive impact" by "robbing New Zealand Inc of substantial economic wealth and exposing our industry to significant risk".

Media reports and Auckland University studies into the conditions suffered by around 2500 mainly Asian men working 26 boats prompted the inquiry.

Since quota management started in 1986, FCVs have created a wild west fishery while sending the local fishing fleet into decline.

"Most of the catch from FCVs is processed in China utilising slave labour and then resold into the world markets as `Produce of New Zealand'," said Talley's.

"This product is sold in direct competition to seafood caught by New Zealanders and processed by New Zealanders."

The company added that FCV catch is outside normal food security checks in New Zealand.

"Instead of the New Zealand brand being associated with sustainable harvesting and responsible, trusted New Zealand processing, the brand is at risk of being associated with Third World processing standards and deceptive marketing."

FCVs account for 90% of all seabird strikes, said Talley's, and 70% of all deep water offences and 100% of ship desertions. That is why New Zealanders don't work on the boats. "[Nobody] should have to work in those conditions and certainly not in New Zealand."

Talley's was puzzled why Maori leaders argued for FCVs when so many Maori were unemployed. The company suggested Maori should investigate "demise charter" which means hiring an empty boat and providing the crew. In contrast, FCVs are on time charter, which is like hiring a taxi.

"Influential Maori should demand a change in direction that would allow a group of Maori fishermen to demise charter a fishing craft and crew it with their young people."

Iwi who made submissions said they could not afford to own boats, but Talley's said that was a side issue.

FCV supporters said the vessels take fish that would otherwise be uneconomic to catch.

Talley's said that was no justification: "If it is uneconomic to harvest a New Zealand resource under New Zealand labour conditions and costs then it is not a resource. Blood diamonds and Asian textile sweatshops use the same justification."

The inquiry followed last year's sinking of the Oyang 70, killing six men. The crew of its replacement boat, Oyang 75, walked off, claiming abuse. Last week the Ministry of Fisheries laid 26 charges against its Korean officers over allegations of dumping fish overboard.

Sajo Oyang Corporation, whose New Zealand charter entity is Southern Storm Fishing (2007) Ltd, warned the inquiry that New Zealand does not have legal jurisdiction past the 12 mile territorial limit in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

"The EEZ is not part of New Zealand, but rather it is an area over which New Zealand is given certain sovereign and jurisdictional rights and obligations," Southern Storm managing director Soon Nam Oh told the inquiry.

He said that "parties with broader political agenda" were exploiting the Oyang 70's sinking. Auckland University and the Sunday Star-Times were acting in a "politically motivated campaign designed to create a moral panic amongst fair-minded New Zealanders".

Maritime lawyer Peter Dawson of Nelson had dealt with FCVs in Africa.

"Korean-flagged vessels have a uniformly poor reputation amongst third-world African states for poor labour practices, and unscrupulous pillaging of third-world fishing nations."

He noted that the government allowed Korea and Japan to impose 15% tariffs on New Zealand-caught fish. The use of FCVs had resulted in 30 years of disinvestment in fishing, and New Zealand had missed out on fishing innovation.

Most of the caught fish was processed in China.

"This fact itself is damaging to the New Zealand brand, as the produce, although caught in New Zealand waters and labelled `Product of New Zealand' never reaches our shore," Dawson said.

The Council of Trade Unions told the inquiry that Australia required fishing boats in its EEZ to be Australian-flagged, but FCVs here were flagged in South Korea, Ukraine, Japan and Dominica.

Maritime New Zealand said FCVs were a "legal anomaly" and reform was needed. It said New Zealand was not a party to two international conventions on safety and standards aboard fishing boats.

Listed fishing company Sanfords Ltd, which uses FCVs, said restrictions would be "unwarranted and counter-productive" and "would seriously hamper the future development of New Zealand's fishing industry".

Sealords – half owned by Maori and a Japanese company – said that ending use of these vessels would cost New Zealand about $196 million in exports.

"FCVs generally harvest low-value species that are unprofitable and/or not practicable for New Zealand vessels to harvest."

The Labour Department said New Zealand would benefit directly if locals got into fishing. This would also end exploitative labour practices because "New Zealanders simply would not tolerate, and could not afford, the kind of practices alleged – especially toward Indonesian crew."

The inquiry, chaired by former minister of labour Paul Swain, is holding hearings in Auckland on Wednesday and Nelson on Thursday. It is due to report by February 24.

Sunday Star Times