An investigation has been launched into how a fire broke out on a fishing trawler this morning, prompting the evacuation of the entire crew.

All of the crew of a Talley's fishing vessel on fire off the coast of Canterbury have now abandoned ship, as the blaze has spread throughout the vessel.

Maritime New Zealand said 39 crew members aboard the New Zealand-flagged Amaltal Columbia are now safely on board the Russian fishing vessel, the Ivan Golubets, which responded to the ship's mayday call this morning.

Four other crew, including the ship's captain and chief engineer, had remained aboard the vessel, however they have now been transferred on to the San Discovery.


The fire started in the meal hold in the stern of the vessel and was initially said to be contained, however it has now spread throughout the ship, Maritime New Zealand said.

The 54-metre trawler is about 70km northeast of the Lyttelton Heads.

The Rescue Coordination Centre said it received an urgency call from the vessel at 5.24am alerting them to the fire. This was then upgraded to a mayday call about 5.40am.

None of the crew is believed to have been injured.

Search and Rescue mission coordinator Tracy Brickles said the safe transfer of crew off the vessel was an excellent result.

"The priority in these situations is always the safety of the crew. This is a good result in difficult conditions with winds of 30 knots and a swell of 4m. We would thank the masters of the Ivan Golubets and the San Discovery for their prompt response."

A Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion, which was in the area for a standard fisheries patrol, is monitoring the situation from above.

Maritime New Zealand Steve Rendle said Air Force personnel had observed the extent of the fire using thermal imaging equipment.


"[The fire] has spread reasonably ... there are heat spots showing around the starboard side," he said.

Mr Rendle said the blaze is "definitely not a fireball" as has been reported.

"It's largely smoke coming out of available openings. I don't think anyone has reported any flames [visible above deck], but that doesn't mean there isn't fire."

Search and rescue mission coordinator Conrad Reynecke said contingencies were being put in place to have helicopters from Christchurch, with winching capability, on stand-by.

Meanwhile the Transport Accident Investigation Commission has launched an inquiry into the blaze. A spokesperson said two investigators have been assigned to the inquiry and are monitoring the situation from Wellington.

In 2005 the Amaltal Columbia grounded about 100 metres northwest of Town Wharf at Bluff, although it was refloated the same morning.