Editorial - Fishing vessel scandal

The Government should not have needed a ministerial Inquiry into foreign charter vessels to tell it our international reputation is being sullied by disgraceful conditions on some boats fishing in New Zealand waters. Now it has the information, it must hasten to implement the recommendations.

The report refers to breaches of safety and labour standards and calls for an end to "exploitative practices". It was clear some operators of foreign-flagged vessels (mostly Korean) had been mistreating their crews and acting in disregard of New Zealand's laws, it says.

Primary Industries Minister David Carter told Parliament the report showed there had been "issues of abuse" on some foreign charter vessels. The influential Bloomberg Business Week was much blunter in a damning report headed "Slaves Put Squid on US Dining Tables From South Pacific Catch". Based on allegations from 20 or so fishermen, it said the coerced labour it described was modern-day slavery, as the United Nations defines the crime.

Similar concerns about foreign boats have circulated for decades. They were highlighted last year in an Auckland University study and media reports. Our authorities persistently turned a blind eye. The ministerial report says the police regarded the issues as employment-related, better dealt with by the Labour Department.

Official indifference culminated in the sinking of the Oyang 70 off the Otago coast and the deaths of six crewmen. The inquiry triggered by that tragedy now recommends extensive reform of the industry, including extending maritime rules and the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 to cover foreign charter vessels. Another proposal is to allow the Director-General of Fisheries to revoke a foreign charter vessel's registration.

The initial ministerial response was promising. The Government "has resolved to take a stronger line" on the operation of foreign charter vessels in New Zealand waters. It has decided to accept "in principle" and act on six of the recommendations. But Mr Carter said the Government wanted to understand the wider economic impacts before deciding on nine other recommendations. The eradication of shameful practices becomes subject to economic considerations. That is a moral outrage.