Drugs on deck: Meth abuse hampers use of fisheries observers

Northland District Health Board meth clinician Cordelia Waetford explains how methamphetamine is addictive and how treatment helps. (Video first published in January 2020).

Methamphetamine abuse aboard the commercial fishing fleet is preventing officials from placing observers on high-risk vessels.

Reports released to Stuff reveal hard drug use and the erratic behaviour of crew has led to observers feeling unsafe. And in some cases the Ministry for Primary Industries have refused to put staff on board.

And a survey commissioned by Maritime NZ reveals 30 per cent of fishers knew someone who used drugs while on deck.

It follows the death of 26-year-old Steffan Stewart, who died after becoming trapped in a piece of machinery aboard a factory trawler. He was found with methamphetamine in his system likely consumed at sea, a Transport Accident Investigation Commission review found.

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Documents reveal officers cancelled plans to have monitors on two Napier-based vessels over concerns about “prevalent” drug use. MPI has withheld all identifying details from the reports.

Observers are watchdogs who travel aboard vessels to monitor for illegal activity and endangered species by-catch.

In 2020, a senior manager in Wellington ordered that observers “stay well clear” of the vessels while investigations took place.

A year earlier, an observer reported crew on another vessel “appeared to be under the influence”. They also “felt uneasy while sleeping”.

A survey reveals 30 per cent of fishers know someone who used drugs on board. (File photo)
Maarten Holl/Stuff
A survey reveals 30 per cent of fishers know someone who used drugs on board. (File photo)

The observer shared a cabin with a deckhand who packed a butane torch in his bag. (The torches are used to smoke meth.) He also went missing for a 13-hour stretch when the vessel was due to leave port. The observer never saw him sleep and reported that he had “erratic body movements”.

The documents also reveal the observer, over a 36-hour voyage, also reported: “numerous near misses and incidents... which made [him] feel very unsafe.” He left the vessel once it arrived in an unnamed port.

MPI reported the allegations to Maritime NZ, who opened an investigation. The agency noted: “Eventually an Observer needs to be put back on board, but only after Maritime have followed up.”

Last year, a Tauranga-based fisheries officer advised no observers be placed on a vessel where the skipper was suspected of drug use. He judged the operator would be a “high risk” to observers. A Wellington-based senior manager agreed: “yip, let’s avoid that one for now.”

And in June, an observer aboard a trawler targeting hoki, orange roughy and silver warehou, reported a crew member “exhibiting signs of methamphetamine withdrawals and behaving irrationally, making derogatory and homophobic comments.” The man made the observer and other crew feel uncomfortable.

The documents also reveal reports from industry sources of drug abusive, and unpredictable and aggressive behaviour.

Napier’s West Quay was at the centre of allegations from an experienced commercial fisher in late 2019. He told MPI staff of “prolific drug use and increasing gang activity” around the wharf.

The skipper had recently been forced to fire a crewman after being “physically threatened... something that has occurred on a previous occasion”. He operated a ‘no drugs’ policy and was “having real problems with meth-affected crew”.

“After 3-4 days at sea crew were becoming steadily more aggressive as withdrawal type symptoms started to become apparent,” the report says. “It was particularly hard to find drug-free crew around the Napier Port,” the skipper told fisheries officers.

There are also accounts from a whistle-blower interviewed by compliance officers of crew sailing from the Hawke’s Bay port “smoking their ‘crack’ and... that out of it, it was like they were talking in tongues”.

Napier’s West Quay is at the centre of allegations from an experience commercial skipper. (File photo)
Napier’s West Quay is at the centre of allegations from an experience commercial skipper. (File photo)

In October 2019, Wellington-based officers filed a report following an inspection. “[The] skipper made a comment... stating he is getting out of the fishing game due to the amount of meth use in the industry.” He’d recently had to fire crew because of drug use. “He also commented that at the Wellington Port, early morning there were regularly a couple of dealers making their way along the docked vessels, selling to different crew members.”

Five months later, following a tip-off from an anonymous crew member, MPI staff made an inspection of a vessel docked at the city’s Queens Wharf. “During the inspection several members of the crew appeared to be under the influence of either drugs or alcohol,” the report says. “I believe this due to their appearance and way they spoke; this included the first mate. I believe the crew of this vessel are a high risk of drug use, and inspections in future need to take this into account.”

And in August 2021, police searched a boat and found a meth pipe and cannabis. MPI redacted the name of the vessel and port.

Catch is processed aboard a fishing vessel. (File photo)
Catch is processed aboard a fishing vessel. (File photo)

Trawler freezerman Stewart, of New Plymouth, died on the factory deck of the Sandford-owned San Granit in November 2018, as it trawled 102 kilometres east of Banks Peninsula.

TAIC warned against the use of performance-impairing substances. But it could not determine if Stewart’s meth use contributed to the accident.

The company was later fined $375,000 and ordered to pay $121,860 reparations and $35,000 for avoidable health and safety failures.

Eight companies are responsible for 80 per cent of the country’s production and have strict drug and alcohol policies in place.

Following Stewart’s death, Sanford now test every deepwater crew member on every voyage. “Sanford has a “zero tolerance” drug and alcohol testing policy aimed at keeping our people safe at work,” general manager of fishing Colin Williams said. “As well as procedures like post-incident testing as-standard across the business, we have a 100 per cent testing policy for all our crew members out of our Timaru deepwater base. This covers hundreds of our share fishers.

“Everyone is tested prior to the commencement of each voyage. They themselves have welcomed this policy because everyone understands it’s about safety.”

Talley’s chief executive Tony Hazlett said: “As well as testing, we have a no tolerance disciplinary approach that is made very clear to every crew member.”

Crew abuse meth and other stimulants to stay awake for long periods, and ease boredom. (File photo)
Peter Drury/stuff
Crew abuse meth and other stimulants to stay awake for long periods, and ease boredom. (File photo)

MPI also has a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards substance abuse on vessels, but it is not a fisheries offence and the agency does not investigate drug use.

Maritime New Zealand regulates health and safety onboard commercial vessels, and the police are responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes.

“Where MPI become aware of alleged drug use on commercial fishing vessels, we share this information with Maritime New Zealand or the New Zealand Police as the responsible agencies for these alleged offences,” MPI’s Monique Andrew says. “These agencies will undertake their own investigation to determine whether and what action is required.”

Andrew said the agency works with operators “to ensure any known or perceived risk of this nature is managed if an MPI fisheries observer is to be placed on a vessel...MPI has responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of our observer workforce, and we may decide not to place an observer on a vessel if we are not satisfied their safety can be ensured.”

A catch of orange roughy in the Tasman Sea. (File photo)
Shani Bennett/Stuff
A catch of orange roughy in the Tasman Sea. (File photo)

Maritime NZ said it holds “fairly limited” information on methamphetamine use aboard vessels. It identified two notifications in 2020. The first was a report of “crew appearing unsteady when disembarking.” The second was a tip-off from a crew member to report meth use by the skipper, who was said to be impaired and sleeping during night watch periods, resulting in a near grounding of the boat.

“Both instances were investigated by Maritime NZ, with a further audit scheduled for one of the vessels in question with a focus on drug and alcohol procedures, as well as consideration to undertake swab tests for methamphetamine within the vessel,” the agency said.

In 2019, the agency commissioned the NZ Drug Foundation to carry out an online survey. From 346 respondents, they gleaned that there were relatively low rates of drug use. But the longer at sea, the more likely crew were to have used alcohol and cannabis on the vessel. Alcohol and cannabis were the most commonly used drugs onboard. Those aged 50-plus were least likely to have tried illegal drugs. Meth and LSD use was highest in 36-49 age group.

Nearly two thirds (63 per cent) thought drugs shouldn’t be consumed on board, and 30 per cent knew someone who used drugs at sea in the past three months. Less than ten per cent had ever used meth, 15 per cent MDMA and just under 60 per cent for cannabis.

Steffan Antony Stewart, 26, of New Plymouth, died after becoming trapped in a piece of machinery aboard the San Granit. (File photo)
Steffan Antony Stewart, 26, of New Plymouth, died after becoming trapped in a piece of machinery aboard the San Granit. (File photo)

* CORRECTION: A photo in this story was removed due to the vessel not being involved in the issues raised. (Amended February 28, 2022, 6.10pm.)