Swallowed by the sea

The crew of the Loung Dar were rescued when their vessel got into trouble near the Kermadec Islands. Picture / RNZAF

Stray fishing floats and an oil slick marked the spot. The Taiwanese fishing vessel Lih Fah and its crew of 17 men had vanished off the coast of New Zealand. It was as if the Tasman Sea had swallowed them whole.

In Wellington, New Zealand rescue authorities scrambled, on-duty officers spending all of the Good Friday holiday on a mission. At sea, eight Taiwanese fishing vessels circled trying to find signs of one of their own who had fallen prey to the sea. But all their efforts were in vain.

One of the boats searching was the Loung Dar, and within months it, too, would sink.

The droll and defensive Ray Parker of the National Rescue Co-ordination Centre would go no further than conceding that having two boats sink in such a short time was "more frequent than normal".

"As far as occurrences involving foreign fishing vessels, we have them periodically - maybe there's a fire or a crew member gets injured. A sinking is a bit of a rarity, and two sinkings within two or three months sounds more than careless, but I don't know anything about that."

Despite Parker's caution, the two sinkings have raised serious questions. What is going on in the waters off New Zealand? Just what kind of life is it for the men who sweat and toil to bring you the cans of tuna in your pantry? Are New Zealand taxpayers paying the price for unsafe practices among the high seas fishing fleets?

The Lih Fah was one of about 150 Taiwanese fishing boats working in the South Pacific under licences issued by the Fijians. More than 1300 foreign vessels have similar arrangements with island governments.

The Forum Fisheries Agency, which keeps a register of international vessels fishing in western Pacific nations' waters, says most of the boats come from Japan, Taiwan, the United States, China, Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia. They obtain licences from the Pacific countries in whose waters they want to fish.

The Lih Fah, like other boats fishing under these terms, would work in Fijian waters but also chase schools into the international waters to the south.

New Zealand fishing industry sources say that while the Fijian system is generally robust, administration and monitoring of foreign vessels in the Pacific is patchy.

"Licensing in some places is corrupt and it's a pretty vexed issue," says one source. Safety standards are variable. "Some of them sailing out of Fiji are floating shitboxes, others are seaworthy and sophisticated vessels."

Among Taiwan's fishing fleet of 26,000 boats, hauling in fish worth US$2.8 billion a year, the casualty rate is high. According to a research paper on Taiwan's search and rescue system, each year an average of 78 fishing boats sink, resulting in 66 deaths. Still, the sinking of the Lih Fah was a large-scale loss.

The skipper of the Lih Fah, 65-year-old Chen Ching Kung, was due to retire after one more trip to sea. As he steamed out from Suva on February 20 for his final journey, there was one other Taiwanese man on board, 14 Chinese and a Vietnamese. Most were in their 20s, the youngest 21.

The Lih Fah, a 32m longliner, had been in port for maintenance. For at least 14 years it had been plying international waters for albacore tuna. The vessel would stay at sea for between eight and 10 weeks at a time, with the fish stored in freezers on board. Most of the catch ended up in the tuna cannery at Levuka, Fiji's former capital.

The Mission to Seafarers says that, generally, conditions on foreign fishing vessels are "awful" and the pay lousy. Often, the crew's pay depends partly on how much they catch, meaning there is pressure to fish in unsuitable weather.

By April 17, the crew had been at sea for two months. They were fishing in the Tasman, about 800km west of Auckland, with up to eight other Taiwanese vessels, all in radio contact with each other.

About 1am, the fleet was at work, despite stormy conditions. A gale warning was in place as a slow-moving, 450km-wide storm whipped the sea into a treacherous state. Meteorologists described the seas as rough to very rough, and the swell stood 6m tall.

The Lih Fah was rolling around and water was washing over the sides. Skipper Chen Ching Kung radioed to one of the other Taiwanese boats, the Loung Dar, saying he needed to go on deck to check things. Something was wrong.

As the Loung Dar skipper listened, suddenly Chen Ching Kung crackled back on the airwaves. The Lih Fah was flooding and he pleaded with others in the fleet to come and rescue his crew. Then the radio communications cut out.

Nobody knows what happened next on the Lih Fah. John Lee, operations manager of the Tai Fi Shipping Agents, says it is likely the seawater flowed into the hatches and flooded the boat, causing it to sink.

"It would have happened so fast," says Lee. "The time for the captain to muster his crew was very short. Everyone probably got tangled in the mess of things [on deck] because they were working at the time." There was no time to man the two lifeboats on board or set off the emergency locator beacon.

The captain about to enjoy his retirement and his young crew went to the bottom of the sea, caught in the lines of their doomed vessel.

By the time the Loung Dar and other boats reached the Lih Fah's last known position, all they found was a fender , fishing tackle, floats, a marine lifebuoy and an oil slick.

The boats kept searching, but they were acting on their own. New Zealand rescue authorities, responsible for the patch of international water where the sinking occurred, were not alerted until about 15 hours later when Taiwanese officials in Wellington contacted the Maritime Safety Authority.

Officials at the authority contacted the National Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Lower Hutt and an Air Force P3 Orion was put on standby.

Communication with the boats in the area was limited. They were operating on company radio frequencies and, although one had a satellite phone, there were language difficulties.

By 10pm Thursday, it was decided there was no point sending the Orion to the area until daylight, especially with boats already there.

Early Good Friday morning, a conference call between MSA duty officers, the shipping agent and one of the skippers revealed that the boats had abandoned the search the night before and headed north to escape the weather. They would not go back to the area, the agents said, because the weather was too rough and because they were all back fishing.

Nonetheless, the National Rescue Co-ordination Centre pressed on. The mission was headed by Terry Knight, who with Brian Satur of the MSA and an officer who co-ordinated with the Air Force, mapped out a likely search area.

More than 30 hours after the sinking - including a two-hour delay because of a fuel contamination problem - the Orion left Auckland. It scanned overhead for about eight hours, but saw nothing more than an orange buoy.

Marine radio operators sent messages asking for vessels in the Tasman to keep a look out for signs of the Lih Fah. The messages were continued for a month but no one has reported seeing anything.

Ray Parker, of the NRCC, says that even if some of the crew had managed to scramble free before the sinking, they would not have survived long in the water, given the conditions.

Three months after the Lih Fah disappeared, one of the boats which helped in the search, the Loung Dar, found itself in trouble near the Kermadec Islands, about 600km north of New Zealand. The skipper managed to radio for help and order his crew of 20 into a liferaft before the boat sank. The crew were picked up by a sister vessel after six hours and were shipped back to shore within days.

As with the Lih Fah incident, the Taiwanese did not immediately notify search and rescue authorities, preferring instead to rely on their own fleet to go to the assistance of the stricken vessel. The shipping agent's operations manager, John Lee, says he was always confident that the Loung Dar crew would be picked up by a fellow vessel.

When New Zealand authorities were told about the Loung Dar incident, an Orion was sent to the area. But it was soon discovered that they had been given the wrong co-ordinates. New Zealand officials were told that the Loung Dar was at latitude 29 south when in fact it was at 25 south.

Lee says the co-ordinates must have been mixed up as they were relayed through to Wellington. "I believe it was just a hiccup and we are just happy to receive our crew."

At one point during the Orion's fruitless night-time flight, NRCC officials rang Lee to clarify the co-ordinates. He says he was unable to help them because he was dozing off to sleep at the time. And besides, he says, he was confident by that stage that the crew would be picked up by a sister vessel.

Back in Wellington, if the NRCC is unhappy about the way it was notified about the Lih Fah and the Loung Dar sinkings, it is not saying so.

Ray Parker says it is up to the fishing companies and agents if they want to run their own rescues. "It worked with the Loung Dar - it doesn't seem to have with the Lih Fah," says Parker.

"If they had elected to come to us earlier [over the Lih Fah], we might have been able to assist, but there's no guarantee.

"The best assessment I can get is from the comment of a skipper of a fellow vessel and he gave the indication it was a quick event. No matter how soon they got us, it would be two to three hours before we could get anything airborne or into the area, so would it make a difference? I don't know. But I could make a guess on it."

Changes about to be brought in for foreign vessels on the Forum Fisheries Agency register may have made a difference for the crew of the Lih Fah. From next month, all boats applying to be on the register must be fitted with the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), a system that uses satellites to track boats at sea.

New Zealand offshore fishing boats already must have VMS, which was introduced to allow the Ministry of Fisheries to police New Zealand waters.

The spin-off is that it means rescue authorities are alerted quickly to problems on board.

"If both these vessels had a VMS on board ... there would have been a good chance that, saving a major catastrophic explosion on board, they would have been able to push the distress button on the unit and it would have immediately automatically relayed their distress signal and exact location to air-sea rescue," says Karl Staisch, observer programme manager of the Forum Fisheries Agency.

Fishing agent John Lee says that as both ships had current safety certificates issued by the Taiwanese authorities, he has to presume that the Lih Fah and the Loung Dar were shipshape. "I don't see any discrepancy in the system."

He thinks the Loung Dar's problems were caused by a cargo and fuel imbalance in the rough conditions.

"We were fortunate in the sense that we had one vessel get to safety, but as for the other one, time was not on their hands.

"If things could have been done better, we would have done that. I don't think anyone stands a chance when nature takes its toll."