Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor will not comment on the future of live animal shipments from New Zealand, as public calls grow for the exports to stop after the loss of a large animal carrier in a storm this week.

New Zealand has suspended live cattle exports after a ship carrying nearly 6000 New Zealand dairy cows sank off the Japanese coast on Wednesday. Two New Zealanders are among the 43 crew aboard the Gulf Livestock 1, which was en route from Napier to China.

Only one survivor has so far been reported.

The vessel reportedly developed engine problems and sank in rough seas caused by Typhoon Maysak, the survivor said.

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Safe wants live animal exports to be banned. File photo / Warren Buckland
Safe wants live animal exports to be banned. File photo / Warren Buckland

New Zealand animal welfare advocate Safe has renewed its calls for live exports to be stopped, urging the public to petition O'Connor.

But the minister declined the Herald's request for comment, saying "the key focus for everyone right now is on finding out the situation in relation to the crew and supporting their families".

His ministry said live exports had been suspended while it sought to understand what had happened to the missing ship.

The Ministry for Primary Industries said it was already reviewing New Zealand's livestock export rules to improve animal welfare and protect New Zealand's reputation as a responsible exporter.

It had received more than 3500 submissions during the nine-week public consultation period, this year.

"We have analysed the submissions, following delays due to Covid-19, and are preparing advice for the Minister of Agriculture about the feedback and possible policy options."

Safe is calling for O'Connor to release the review's findings before the election.

The Gulf Livestock 1 crew comprised 39 Filipinos, two Australians and two New Zealanders, it has been reported.

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One of the Australians is veterinarian Lukas Orda, 25, of Queensland, who had only begun the job in June after leaving a horse veterinary practice on the Gold Coast, the Guardian reported.

The ship was registered under a Panamanian flag and is owned by Gulf Navigation Holding, based in the United Arab Emirates. It left Napier in New Zealand on August 14 with 5867 cattle onboard, said New Zealand's foreign ministry.

The vessel was bound for Jingtang in Tangshan, China, on a journey that should have taken 17 days.

Although New Zealand has banned exporting livestock for slaughter, animals can still be sent overseas for breeding purposes. What worries Safe is how they are treated in countries with no animal welfare laws and how they are eventually slaughtered.

MPI statistics for last year show 39,489 cattle were exported, 3919 goats, 2898 horses and 50 sheep. The value of all livestock exported was $54 million in the year ending June 2019.

Safe said the Gulf Livestock 1 had a history of engine problems. During a voyage in July last year, the livestock vessel drifted for 25 hours while being repaired after an engine failure, the group said.

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Australasian Global Exports (AGE), the company exporting the dairy cows on the capsized ship was reprimanded by the Australian Department of Agriculture in July this year, after alleged ear tag tampering on cows infected with Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis, said Safe.

Safe campaigns manager said O'Connor needed to front up with his review now.

"Kiwis are rightfully appalled by the news that 5867 New Zealand cows have likely drowned at sea. Damien O'Connor is yet to signal where the Government stands on live export and people deserve to know."

A survivor is pulled from the sea near where a live export ship disappeared. Photo / Japan Coast Guard
A survivor is pulled from the sea near where a live export ship disappeared. Photo / Japan Coast Guard

Safe said two other live export ships were in the typhoon-affected area, including the Yangtze Harmony, which left Port Taranaki on August 19 carrying 5700 cows.

This is the fourth typhoon to hit the region this year, it said.

"This is a human and animal welfare disaster. Our thoughts are with the families who are missing their loved ones, but we have to recognise the risk to animals that the live export trade brings.

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"As land animals, those cows would have been terrified during such rough seas with no chance of escape. It would have been horrific."

The Guardian reports livestock ships are often owned and managed by different companies and name changes are common.

The Gulf Livestock 1, previously named Rahmeh, Cetus J, Dana Hollandia and Maersk Waterford, is currently managed by a German company, MC-Schiffahrt.

Shipping website Equasis showed the Gulf Livestock 1 was detained on 22 May 2019 in the Australian port of Broome with seven deficiencies. It was kept for three days and deficiencies listed include two "safety of navigation" defects and one labour conditions fault, the Guardian reported.