Fishing rivals face off over foreign boats

The Government should reform the use of foreign charter fishing boats without delay or a period of grace, Talley's Group managing director Peter Talley told a ministerial inquiry in Nelson yesterday.

But Nelson's other senior fishing industry figure, Solander boss Charles Hufflett, took the opposing view, arguing that the right course was to remove impediments to New Zealand companies, and not force out foreign boats and crews.

The hearing, at the Honest Lawyer Country Pub and Hotel at Monaco, saw Mr Talley and his son Andrew pitted against Mr Hufflett and his son Paul.

Both families have been involved in the deepsea fishing industry since its beginnings more than 40 years ago, and have had various business links over the years.

Talley's is one of New Zealand's "big four" industry players, along with Maori, Sealord and Sanford. The Hufflett companies, under the Solander Group umbrella, have only about 2 per cent of New Zealand fish quota but are involved in squid jigging, tuna longlining and the trawl fishery for the Japanese market, all using foreign-crewed boats. They also operate a fleet of 13 vessels from Fiji.

The Talleys have been the most vocal opponents of foreign charter fishing, circulating claims of slave labour and other ill-treatment of crews. Yesterday they pushed for the use of demise or bareboat charters instead of the current system of time charters of foreign boats.

If introduced, this would mean that New Zealand companies could still charter foreign boats, but would have to take on legal possession and control, instead of that remaining with the owners.

It would mean that the crews, regardless of nationality, would have to be employed under the full blanket of New Zealand law, with all its labour protections, and requirements for PAYE and ACC levies to be paid.

The inquiry is examining the use of foreign charter vessels in relation to the maintenance of New Zealand's international reputation and trade access, maximising economic return from the fishing industry, and equitable labour conditions across all vessels.

Mr Talley said he wouldn't allow any phase-in time for the changes. "They've had 30 years and they've done nothing. I'd come out and decree that they've got to pay New Zealand wages, they've got to pay the tax, they've got to do it through a demise charter, and that they've got to have a minimum percentage of New Zealanders on board."

He said there was "a smorgasbord of opportunity" to acquire boats through purchase or charter, with ready finance and New Zealanders willing to crew them.

"The New Zealand fishermen are the best in the world, bar none. I can crew two vessels tomorrow myself, and if I can do it, Sealord can do it, Sanford can do it, Solander could do it."

Questioned by inquiry panel member Sarah McGrath, he said Talley's leased out 8500 tonnes of its quota, about 8 per cent, and one of its quota clients used South Korean charter boats. He said he "couldn't put my hand on my heart" and vouch for that operator's compliance with labour laws, but he knew that "as far as the fishing laws go, he is 100 per cent legit".

Andrew Talley said the issue was about creating a level playing field for all operators, but was being twisted "somewhat deliberately" into suggestions of a downside effect for New Zealand fishing industry businesses.

Earlier, Charles Hufflett had stressed the importance of the long and close relationships between the Solander-managed companies and the Japanese vessel owners, crews and customers, allowing the development of niche businesses that catered exclusively to Japan.

In all cases they were specialist vessels maintained to a high standard and offering excellent working conditions, Charles Hufflett said. In the current conditions it would be uneconomic to operate New Zealand-crewed boats to catch the same fish, with the seasonal squid and tuna fisheries posing a particular problem.

Paul Hufflett said one sector of the industry wanted new rules that would provide it with a competitive advantage that would destroy other businesses.

"New Zealand's reputation is being harmed not by the foreign charter vessels but by the anti-foreign charter vessel lobbyists who care little of what basis there is for the accusations they make. The crew on our charter vessel are not slaves and it is an insult to them and to the nations they come from to suggest so.

"It's my personal view that what we are seeing is some of the worst of New Zealand nationalism being promoted by some of the lobbyists."

The Nelson sitting was the last of four, after Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. The inquiry is due to report on February 24. The police, Labour Department and Maritime New Zealand are separately inquiring into the allegations of crew abuse and illegal practices around the foreign charter fleet.

The Nelson Mail