A dramatic sea rescue exposes a concerning trade in old New Zealand fishing boats. Will it end in disaster?


He wakes in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, his mind going back to the day he lost everything.

He grabs his daughter's tablet and watches the video for the hundredth time.

Shot from the deck of the German cruise liner Albatros, it shows his stricken trawler, the Losemani Fo'ou, being rescued by one of the ship's life boats.

A Tongan crewman ends up in the sea; another’s head is split open.

Vailele Taukitoku had bought the trawler for $83,000 from New Zealand four months earlier - he never saw it again.

Vailele Taukitoku, pictured with daughter Sela, lost the boat he'd hoped to make a living from.

Vailele Taukitoku, pictured with daughter Sela, lost the boat he'd hoped to make a living from.

He and five crew had been fishing for snapper several hundred kilometres south of Tonga when they discovered the alternator belt was loose and both banks of batteries were dead.

Unable to start the engine or operate the radio, they had no choice but to activate the emergency beacon during the early hours of February 4, prompting a major search and rescue operation funded by the New Zealand taxpayer.

An Airforce Orion flew from Whenuapai and dropped equipment, while the Albatros was diverted from 300km away, taking the crew to Auckland.

Taukitoku had asked for a 24 volt battery to start the engine and two were ready, with jumper leads, on the rescue boat.

To Taukitoku, the sea conditions were "normal", but the rescuers were alarmed by the way the boat was rocking and taking on water so instead they threw a rope and brought the Losemani Fo'ou alongside the Albatros.

The trawler was left behind - with it went his livelihood.

He'd retired from jobs as an instructor at the Tonga Maritime Polytechnic Institute and with the police rescue unit, so fishing for export snapper and bluenose was his only means of providing for his wife and daughter.

"I feel... lost," he says, his voice trailing off.

Dramatic video shows the abandonment of the stricken trawler, which Vailele Taukitoku had bought for $83,000 from NZ four months earlier.

When Taukitoku arrived home there was more bad news.

His loan from the Tonga Development Bank (TDB) was not insured (neither was the trawler) and he would be expected to continue making re-payments.

It's a dire situation - without his main source of income he can't hope to service the 188,000 pa'anga ($120,000) loan and that means that he could lose the property he put up as collateral. Already he is a month in arrears.

Vailele Taukitoku, right, admits he made mistakes, but says the boat's survey report was outdated.

Vailele Taukitoku, right, admits he made mistakes, but says the boat's survey report was outdated.

He and his family have always fished - his brother died at sea - and Taukitoku admits he made mistakes before he set off for a week-long trip in late January, chief among them forgetting to draw up a check-list and leaving behind his emergency generator.

There were six people on board when the vessel was only certified to carry four.

But he's unhappy with the deal that led to the purchase of the trawler from New Zealand, and the condition of the boat.

He claims the safety equipment - flares, life raft, fire extinguishers - had expired, the radio was no good, and when he took the boat out of the water in Nuku'alofa he found a hole in the hull near the keel big enough to fit three fingers.

"After we repaired the port side, [we found] another leak on the other side," he says.

The trawler's five-year certificate of survey, a maritime equivalent of a warrant of fitness and valid until 2020, did not match the condition of the boat when he bought it, he claims.

Taukitoku is one of at least seven people to have used TDB loans, with interest rates as low as 1 per cent, to buy old boats from New Zealand in the past few months.

Second-hand boats are all that can be afforded with TDB loans designed to help the fishing industry.

Second-hand boats are all that can be afforded with TDB loans designed to help the fishing industry.

The money is part of a 1m pa'anga ($655,000) fund to provide employment in the fishing industry at a time when Pacific Island fisheries are being plundered by illegal operators.

It's a tiny amount by world standards and means that those wanting to take out a loan - some with no experience of deep sea fishing - can only afford second-hand boats.

Trawlers, mostly around 12m and ranging in age from 45 to 80, have been purchased from Greymouth, Picton, Havelock, Timaru and Dunedin for between $60-80,000.

Some of the buyers have complained about the survey reports, but sources say a maritime survey is only a reflection of a boat's condition at the time of inspection and regular maintenance is needed to keep it sound.

In most of the sales, the middle-man has been Aisake Tuiono, a former chief accountant with the Tonga Electric Power Board, squash exporter, and board member of a failed Chinese-Tongan bank venture.

Tuiono, a close associate of Princess Pilolevu, himself bought a fishing boat with a TDB loan - in 2015 it had to be rescued by the New Zealand airforce and Tongan navy when its engine failed.

Tuiono has helped several buyers find boats and prepare their loan applications, and also travels to New Zealand to inspect the vessels and close the deal.

Aisake Tuiono is the middle-man between Tongan boat buyers and NZ sellers.

Aisake Tuiono is the middle-man between Tongan boat buyers and NZ sellers.

In four instances he has worked with New Zealand boat brokers Maritime International.

Taukitoku and others say they paid Tuiono a 3000 pa'anga ($2000) commission before leaving Tonga.

"When the money was released from the bank, he told me to give him his 3000," Taukitoku says.

Tuiono says by email that he only charges the fee if the buyer wants him to travel to New Zealand to inspect the boat and finalise the sales and purchase agreement. The money covers airfares and "living expenses" in New Zealand, he says.

"I told the fishermen that I don't charge for ... providing information about the fishing vessel and assisting preparation of his loan proposal."

He says he was the first to buy a vessel from New Zealand.

"When my boat arrived nearly all fishermen in Tonga were eager to know what I have done."

He acquired his knowledge of boats, he says, by talking to fishermen, marine engineers, Ministry of Fisheries officers and New Zealand boat brokers.

The buyers are required to pay a 10 per cent deposit before leaving Tonga and they have seven days after signing the purchase agreement to arrange an inspection by a registered surveyor. Most don't.

Because they have spent up to 20,000 pa'anga ($13,000) of their loan money arranging visas and flying a crew to New Zealand to collect the boats, the buyers feel they have to go through with the deal and get home as quickly as possible to start earning and paying back the debt.

"The money was already deposited, if I disagree with it, my deposit was gone, and my expenses, so I decided to buy the boat," Taukitoku says.

Because of a quirk of maritime law, the trawlers are leaving New Zealand without full inspections.

If they were New Zealand commercial vessels going overseas, they'd need extra safety equipment and a Certificate for International Voyage from Maritime NZ.

But the Tongans re-register the boats to a Tongan flag before they leave New Zealand, meaning Maritime NZ has no jurisdiction.

A quirk in maritime law prevents the need for full inspections.

A quirk in maritime law prevents the need for full inspections.

"As soon as you de-register, you're not commercial," says a fishing source in Greymouth, where two boats were sold.

"I could launch the bathtub at home, you can't stop me sailing away in it. That's how they're doing it."

Tonga's Ministry of Infrastructure requires only that the boats have a current New Zealand survey before making the journey.

In the case of the Losemani Fo'ou, it was only certified to operate within 12 nautical miles (22km) of the New Zealand coast, but when it reached Tonga the marine department allowed it to operate within 200 nautical miles (370km) of land.

Teisina Fuko says Tongan lives are being put at risk by the trading of Kiwi fishing boats.

Teisina Fuko, who operates two much larger fishing vessels out of Nuku'alofa and is a former MP and past president of the Tonga National Fishing Council, believes the buyers are getting a raw deal.

"The ones ... from New Zealand are the worst boats," he says.

"It's a waste of money. I wouldn't even spend 20 thousand on one of the boats. I'd say 'you have to fix this, this, this'.

"We go out 200, 300 miles, those are rough seas, almost the high seas. They should have a good boat with a good engine, but these engines have been operating for more than 20 years. You're asking for trouble.

"The police are very worried about it too, we had a meeting with them, they are worried about the old boats going out, they have to go all the time for rescues. Lives are being put at risk."

Teisina Fuko, centre, believes Tongan fishermen are being ripped off by Kiwi boaties selling them their worst trawlers at inflated prices.

Teisina Fuko, centre, believes Tongan fishermen are being ripped off by Kiwi boaties selling them their worst trawlers at inflated prices.

Because of the number of breakdowns, he is dubious that the bank will see its money.

"To pay off these loans is almost impossible - I was a banker, I know."

Conversely, he wants the bank to lend the owners more so they can properly maintain their boats and start earning. And he thinks the Tongan and New Zealand governments should step in.

At TDB headquarters, chief executive Leta Kami is offering few solutions to Taukitoku's plight.

Tonga Development Bank chief executive Leta Kami says fishermen are unlikely to get insurance for their boats.

Tonga Development Bank chief executive Leta Kami says fishermen are unlikely to get insurance for their boats.

"It's sensitive because there's no insurance," she says. "It's very difficult to get insurance companies to insure boats in Tonga.

"That's a risk [customers] have to be prepared to take on their own."

Tuiono, the middleman, says the bank should lend more money to upgrade the boats but Kami says it's a limited, revolving fund and more money will only become available when the loans are repaid.

She says Taukitoku's only "lifeline" may be an email he has from the German travel company that owns the Albatros, indicating it might help him buy a new boat.

Taukitoku, meanwhile, stays home, sleeping late at the decrepit house in central Nuku'alofa he shares with relatives.

He survives on his share of the $23,000 donated by passengers and crew of the Albatros to split amongst his crew.

His daughter, Sela, worries about him.

"It's still in his mind. He still talks about it every day."

NZ is 'basically condoning drowning'

Scott Campbell's phone rang at 2am on February 4, jolting him awake at his home near the port of Greymouth.

It was the rescue co-ordination centre in Wellington, saying the Epirb emergency beacon on his fishing boat, Kainga, had activated.

Only it wasn't his boat any more. And it was no longer called Kainga.

Four months earlier. Campbell had sold the 11.7m, steel-hulled trawler to Taukitoku in a transaction he describes as "strange".

Taukitoku, a contract skipper and a crew member had flown into Hokitika airport in late September and took a taxi to Greymouth, where they met Campbell, a Pike River miner who was trying to get out of the tuna fishing game.

Campbell had had the Kainga for sale on Maritime International's website but there were no takers and he'd almost forgotten about it - until the Tongans got in touch.

Built in Whangarei in 1971 and with a 75-horsepower Gardner engine, the trawler had been out of action for a year or so but still had a current certificate of survey, stating it met safety requirements and was seaworthy.

"She's a pretty solid boat, a low horsepower inshore trawler. But I wouldn't have been charging off to Tonga in it."

The sale seemed almost too easy, he says.

He dealt mainly with Tuiono, the middleman, and Maritime International. Both of those parties took commissions, a total of $9000.

"A week or two went by, they indicated they were keen to buy, then came a sales agreement.

"It had some odd things in it, there was an inspection date and then no inspection, and then a deposit.

"I was worried they would come and say they were not happy but they said 'no we've already paid our deposit, the time for inspections passed', it was quite strange really."

When the Tongans arrived in Greymouth, "they basically walked around [the boat] and said 'we buy'. It's almost like they're not worried about the condition of the boat."

Campbell gave the men a safety induction, but they didn't seem too interested.

They were in a hurry to leave because of the cost of staying in port, and were due to meet another boat, which had been purchased in Havelock, somewhere north of New Zealand.

"They were ready to go but had to wait on the police to do a customs clearance, which took an extra two days.

"I said 'I can get you free ice for ballast' , but they said 'no, we just want to go'.

"I imagine a boat with no ice in it, rocking and rolling."

Campbell didn't realise Taukitoku was the owner at first because he did none of the talking and hardly looked at the boat - leaving that to the skipper, who seemed very capable.

Campbell dismisses Taukitoku's claims about the Kainga.

He confirms the boat left port with outdated flares but says he'd offered to replace them. The Tongans said not to worry because there were new ones on the vessel they were to rendezvous with.

The Kainga was not required to have a life-raft, he says, but he gave Taukitoku one anyway. It was due for a service and should have been surveyed for international waters, but the Tongans didn't want to pay for that.

Documents show the Kainga was re-registered under a Tongan flag in September 2016.

Documents show the Kainga was re-registered under a Tongan flag in September 2016.

There was a near-new VHF radio on board, Campbell says, but the crew also needed a single-side band (SSB) radio for international calls and were having trouble finding one.

Again, he was not required to have an SSB radio for New Zealand but had an old one in his shed which he gifted to the crew. It would have needed replacing when they got to Tonga.

As for the holes Taukitoku found in the hull - Campbell says small holes in steel hulls are common, "no biggie", and fixed with a drop of weld. They were mentioned in the survey report.

He's "baffled" about what went wrong with the batteries, as he'd recently spent $3000 installing new ones.

"There's really not much chance the batteries can go flat. The only way ... is if they've changed something around and wired the lighting off the starting bank batteries. It had separate starting and lighting banks."

Although he is confident he did everything he could to ensure the sale was fair, other deals he's heard about were "dodgy".

"A guy said to me 'someone came along with the money - I couldn't believe my luck'.

Greymouth mayor Tony Kokshoorn says as independent inshore fishers have been squeezed out of the market by bigger operators, ports around New Zealand have filled up with old fishing boats that no-one wants.

"A lot of these boats have been de-registered and they aren't exactly safe."

Kokshoorn believes NZ needs to be careful about shipping boats out to an unsuspecting person in another country that doesn't really know what they're buying.

"Some of these boats are not capable of getting to Tonga - it's not just the hull, it's the motors.

"We've got boats down there that have been sitting there for five to 10 years and haven't gone anywhere."

A port source adds: "A lot of these guys run these boats on the smell of an oily rag, they're forever tinkering with them to keep them going.

"Instead of saying 'I need a new motor' and spending 40 grand, if it's an eight cylinder they just run it on seven cylinders."

Kokshoorn says Maritime NZ needs to put rules in place.

"Motors are going to pack up, there's no doubt about that. If we don't do something about this you're basically condoning people are going to drown out there."

The case of the Karemoana

A couple of months after Taukitoku sailed the Kainga over the Greymouth bar at the start of an 11-day voyage to Tonga, another group of islanders arrived in town.

They were there to buy the Karemoana, a 1930s-era timber vessel that was well known in Greymouth.

Photographs show the Karemoana, smoke pouring from the engine, being met by a coastguard vessel in April last year.

"It always seemed to be getting into trouble," photographer Bob McCauliffe says.

Other fishermen watched in amazement as the "gung ho" group gave the boat a cursory inspection and after a few days, sailed away.

"If you buy a second hand car you'd be under the bonnet and in the boot and looking at the tyres - they just jumped on and took off," says one man.

"I don't think the boat was ready for up there [Tonga]. They took off in a crazy forecast, northerlies and s..., we thought, 'God, where are they going to end up?'"

As it turned out, the Karemoana had to pull into Auckland for repairs because it was taking on water, and then it broke down about 300km from Tonga and had to be towed to Nuku'alofa.

Previous owner John Bromley insists it was a good boat, surveyed under the Maritime Operator Safety System (Moss).

"I had no concerns about the Karemoana," Bromley says.

"It's a terrific sea boat, the motor was done up.

"They had a bit of a problem, a hydraulic hose burst, but that can happen to anybody."

Surveyor Andrew Candler, of Able Ships in Nelson, who inspected the Kainga in July, 2015 and the Karemoana in December, 2015, says survey reports only cover what is found on the day and are by no means a guarantee.

"Within a couple of weeks, people can do strange things to their boats, it's unbelievable. It strikes me that anyone who's buying a boat would do a pre-purchase inspection."

He doesn't inspect the engines and says "Tonga is a long way to go in a little boat".

When a boat is purchased from Australia, Candler says, a surveyor will normally fly over for an inspection, including ensuring there is a fuel management plan in place for the voyage.

He says it's up to Tonga to have a similar process in place, but as a developing country it needs help with that.

Ship broker Godfrey Wilson, owner of Maritime International which has sold four of the boats to Tongans including the Kainga and Karemoana, says to the best of his knowledge there have been no serious problems with any of the vessels. They were all certified.

He says the boats, "low value vessels", were to be changed to a method of drop line fishing not used here, which would entail removing existing equipment and in some cases changing electronics.

"In all cases the vessels were inspected by the buyers or buyers' representatives immediately prior to purchase. Any issues were sorted out at that time."

Buyers didn't want to spend time and money hauling the vessels on to slipways in New Zealand as it was cheaper to do that in Tonga.

Wilson says it's a "good news story" because the boats give the Tongans an opportunity to move on from open boat fishing.

"They should provide them with increased safety and by allowing greater time at sea, give them the opportunity to catch more fish and increase income."

That hasn't so far been the case for the new owner of the Karemoana, Reverend Tevita Havea, the general secretary of Tonga's powerful Methodist Church.

Havea has no experience of fishing other than dropping a line off a wharf when he was a kid, but decided to take advantage of a TDB loan to buy a boat.

"I have limited means, I don't have land...I am the head of the household and have a heavy responsibility. So I look at fishing, perhaps as an opportunity."

The boat cost about $60,000 and he has spent that much again on repairs and renovations.

Re-named the Uilotu, meaning call to worship, the boat has yet to go fishing.

"We've been sitting here December, January, February."

Reverend Tevita Havea says he never would have touched the Karemoana if he'd known how much work it would require.

Havea says he liked the boat when he first saw it in Greymouth. "The quality of the original timber, everyone marvelled that it is still running. It's an antique."

He says he based his decision to buy entirely on the 2015 survey report, which he claims wasn't a fair representation of the condition of the boat when he bought it.

"They didn't tell me anything about a problem with the left side of the boat. We had to take the left side out and replace. The electronics were no use, we had to pull them all out.

"Had I known the situation I found out later, I wouldn't touch the boat."

The trawler was sailed from New Zealand by contract skipper Brian Laulaupea'alu, one of the few local fishermen certified for such a journey.

Laulaupea'alu has brought about five of the New Zealand boats back to Tonga, including the Lady Ann from Dunedin, which he sailed through a huge storm near the Kermadec Islands.

"Can you believe it, he's crazy," jokes one of his colleagues.

Havea is hoping his contract crew will be able to go fishing soon, once the Uilotu gets clearance from marine inspectors.

He's put up assets as collateral.

"It's a very risky exercise but I decided to take it - I'm not going back."

Tangled up in regulation blues

Regulators of fishing boats say they're seen in Tonga as an impediment to making money, but get blamed when things go wrong.

A room at the back of the Ministry of Infrastructure in Nuku'alofa is home to staff of the marine department, set up after the Princess Ashika - an unseaworthy Japanese-built vessel - sank in 2009, claiming 74 lives.

The small team's job is to improve Tonga's maritime safety but it's not easy because legislation continues to lag behind. New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is helping draft new laws which are likely to go before Parliament soon.

Meleami Tualau, head of the department, says there are real concerns about the age and condition of boats coming from New Zealand.

Cesar Dewindt and Meleami Tualau are tasked with improving Tonga's maritime safety.

Cesar Dewindt and Meleami Tualau are tasked with improving Tonga's maritime safety.

"They need to be of better quality, but currently in Tonga we don't have regulations to limit those types of boats. Currently we are allowing any kind of boats, subject to seaworthiness."

Tualau says her department issues a provisional certificate allowing a vessel to sail from New Zealand under a Tongan flag - as long as it meets New Zealand requirements.

Once the boat gets to Tonga a surveyor will inspect and re-register it.

Cesar Dewindt, a technical advisor for the department whose role is funded by the World Bank, says newcomers to the fishing industry don't always count on additional costs and attitudes need to change.

"They think they're going to go out and start making money...and all of a sudden you've got a surveyor saying 'this, this, this'...and you need an extra 50 thousand more.

"They see us as an impediment to making money. Then they blame us for not preventing them killing themselves. One of these days we're gonna have another Princess Ashika and people are gonna say ‘how did this happen?’”

Dewindt was surprised to hear that his department hadn't done an investigation into the loss of the Losemani Fo'ou.

"How come I haven't heard of any accident report, any inquiry, any lessons learned, why was the boat lost? We should do that. It hasn’t even been mentioned."

He believes Maritime NZ should be getting involved before the boats leave New Zealand.

"Even if it's a change of flag, your maritime department has to inspect the boat - and give a waiver for one voyage to come here. They must ensure the boat is fit for that voyage."

But Maritime NZ's chief executive, Keith Manch, says that's not the case - international law clearly states a vessel is the responsibility of the country to which it's flagged.

Maritime NZ says the boats aren't its responsibility because they no longer have a NZ flag.

"It simply wouldn't work if every country was seeking to impose its regime on every other country."

The way Maritime NZ approaches the issue is to help Pacific countries like Tonga with their "capability building" to raise standards, he says.

Under a system called "port state control" Maritime NZ can detain a vessel and stop it from sailing if it has concerns about its safety, but it has to be alerted.

Twice last year Customs contacted the agency about concerns over the nationality of vessels that were trying to depart New Zealand - both were subsequently registered as Tongan and given clearance to leave.

Keith Ingram, a maritime consultant and editor of Professional Skipper magazine, says Maritime NZ's response is a "cop out".

"They need to be educating at the Tongan end that if you buy boats in New Zealand, they've got to be well found and seaworthy and you've got to pass a pre-voyage inspection."

Luke Grogan, Marlborough's harbourmaster, says the Tongan sales have raised a serious issue.

"If someone purchases a vessel and decides to sail off into the sunset, we won’t know anything about it.

"We certainly don’t want vessels at high risk of resulting in an emergency response departing our ports ... our national responsibility for responding to search and rescue callouts covers a huge area."

"If we can prevent them from occurring in the first place then that's the smart thing to do, and if legislation can help you achieve that, then all the better."

Ingram says old boats have been going up to the Pacific "to die" for decades.

"They haven't got the money to buy proper ocean-going boats so they're coming down and buying 50-year-old cast-offs from New Zealand.

"Why are these fellas selling them? Because they're no longer efficient, they've reached the end of their working lives.

"So you either sell it into the pleasure market or you sell it to the Pacific and it goes up there and dies."


WORDS: Tony Wall
VISUALS: Bevan Read