Fishing report submitted to Government

A joint ministerial report on foreign chartered fishing vessels (FCVs) in New Zealand waters was presented to the Government today, but will be kept secret until decisions are made on its contents.

The three-person panel was set up following revelations by Fairfax Media and a University of Auckland Business School study of alleged human rights and physical abuses aboard FCVs.

The mainly Korean flagged FCVs manned by south Asian low wage labour this week featured in Bloomberg Businessweek in the US, sparking investigations by US retailers over whether New Zealand fish complied with statutes against human trafficking.

Primary Industries Minister David Carter and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said they had received the report written by former MP Paul Swain, accountant Sarah McGrath and former public servant Neil Walter.

"The ministers say the Government will now consider the Inquiry Panel's report and recommendations before announcing any decisions," a statement said.

Slave Free Seas, a New Zealand trust that instigated the arrest of two Korean FCVs, called for Wilkinson to speak up now to prevent any more harm to the fishing industry internationally.

Spokesman and Tauranga barrister Craig Tuck said Government silence was fuelling speculation around fishing vessels breaking the law and holding crews in slave-like conditions.

"They need to tell the world they are not sitting on their hands," Tuck said.

"If we can remove this shameful practise from our waters, we can return to promoting our clean image and our law abiding fishing industry as one of the best in the world."

Matt Freidman of the United Nations Interagency Project on Human Trafficking said from Bangkok that many fishing fleets had highly exploitative, slave-like conditions.

"The events that are unfolding in New Zealand have now set a precedent for the first international test case on this matter - to draw a line in the sand for the fishing industry to say this abuse will end here."

The Service and Food Workers Union said they were concerned that the inquiry would limit itself to foreign boats here.

"While this exploitation is obviously totally unacceptable, it will be a tragic lost opportunity if the inquiry fails to address the industry practices that have led to the loss of thousands of local jobs, skills and career paths," union official Neville Donaldson said.

The inquiry sat around the country and found that FCVs took 62 per cent of the deep ocean catch and almost the entire Maori fish quota.

"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," Nelson-based Talley's Group Ltd told the inquiry.

The inquiry followed last year's sinking of the Oyang 70, killing six men.

Sajo Oyang Corporation, whose New Zealand charter entity is Southern Storm Fishing (2007) Ltd, warned the inquiry that New Zealand did 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.

Northland's Ngapuhi iwi defended FCVs, saying they would have no income without them.

Ngapuhi chairman Sir John Goulter angrily denounced claims that fishing and processing amounted to slavery and he suggested the term was coming from two of New Zealand's richer provinces, Nelson and Tasman, which had their own fishing interests.

"Ngapuhi is not aware of any of its products being involved in slave labour."

Sealord Group - jointly owned by Maori and a Japanese company - defended the use of FCVs and said that they were a company with the highest reputational risk to protect.

"There has never been a time when we didn't have foreign vessels in our waters," CEO Graham Stuart said.

If FCVs were forced out, most of the deep water quota value would be destroyed and the best of it would be cherry picked by one of two companies.

Stuart called for "strong punitive action" against boats that broke the laws.