Hawke's Bay's commercial fishing fraternity is mourning a colleague described by his mates and Hawke's Bay Seafoods director Nino D'Esposito as "a really good man" after a routine return to port on Saturday turned to tragedy when he fell overboard and was later found drowned.

Thirty nine-year-old Kevin Thompson was a crewman on the Hawke's Bay Seafoods trawler Jeanette. Mr D'Esposito said Mr Thompson and the skipper of the Jeanette were best of mates.

"He is just devastated," Mr D'Esposito said.

He said the skipper who had been in the wheelhouse at the time Mr Thompson fell overboard raised the alarm as soon as he realised his mate was no longer on deck, and began to frantically start searching - although he battled darkness and strong winds.


Mr Thompson is believed to have gone overboard at about 3.30am on Saturday while the Jeanette was about 400m from the entrance to Napier Port.

While seas were relatively flat there were strong winds.

Police alerted Hawke's Bay Coastguard and Napier Port pilot crews who responded and began searching the immediate area. Coastguard president Henry Van Tuel said the search area had to be determined by the winds and the currents, which he said varied from close to shore and beyond the 1km offshore point. He said conditions were challenging.

"We started searching off the port area initially and then expanded the box [search area]."

The coastguard vessel Celia Knowles was involved alongside the Napier Port's pilot boat Pania. Mr Van Tuel said several other private boats also arrived to help in the search after their owners heard what happened.

Mr Thompson's body was found about 2km off the Marine Parade beach just before 8.30 on Saturday morning - about five hours after he had gone missing.

His body had been spotted by the crew of the Coastguard Air Patrol's fixed-wing aircraft and recovered by the crew aboard the coastguard vessel.

Mr Van Tuel said the volunteer crew had been offered victim support as they were not used to dealing with body recovery incidents.

At the Iron Port yesterday the Jeanette was tied up, and one fisherman from another vessel nearby said it was an accident which "hits everyone pretty hard".

Mr D'Esposito said Mr Thompson had worked for him "on and off" for about 15 years.

He said he had a partner and four children and that the family were struggling with the loss of a man he described as "the salt of the earth".

"He was well known in the fishing fraternity which is like a family and he worked on other boats through the years.

"He was a good, hard-working and experienced fisherman - it's a real tragedy, a terrible accident."

Mr D'Esposito had spoken to Mr Thompson's brother who he said was distraught and struggling to deal with what had happened. Some friends paid their respects online, one saying he had been "lost to Tangaroa" and another describing him as "a top man".

Mr Thompson had been crewing the Jeanette for the past two years.

Mr D'Esposito said the only light in an otherwise dark and tragic situation was that they were able to locate his body and bring him back.

"We needed to find him," Mr Van Tuel said.

"We needed to bring him back."

Mr Thompson was the third person to die in a commercial maritime accident this year, a Maritime New Zealand spokesperson said.

Detective Dave Crosby of Napier police said an investigation was being carried out into the circumstances of the accident and that would be referred to the coroner.