A man recruited in Hong Kong to take part in importing almost 500kg of methamphetamine through Ninety Mile Beach has been jailed for 23 years and must serve almost 10 years before he can apply for parole.

Ka Yip Wan, 26, was sentenced in the High Court at Whangarei this week after pleading guilty to importing methamphetamine.

Wan was one of two Chinese men who went in a boat more than 12 nautical miles off Ninety Mile Beach in June last year and picked up almost 500kg of methamphetamine from another boat and returned it to the beach.

Back on the beach the drugs were handed over to a group of Polynesian members of the group and Wan and the other Chinese man, a Mr Tsai, left the beach.

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Almost 50kg of the drug was buried in sand dunes on the beach while the rest was put into the back of a campervan to be taken for distribution. Police then became involved and caught most of the group, although Mr Tsai managed to fly out of the country before he could be arrested. Wan was arrested as he was trying to leave the country.

The almost 500kg of methamphetamine - or P as it is also known - recovered by police is the largest amount of methamphetamine ever found in New Zealand and was discovered after Far North locals became suspicious. They called police after noticing the occupants of several vehicles acting suspiciously in the area for a fortnight, and trying to launch boats off the west coast.

Police found a boat abandoned on Ninety Mile Beach and began searching for a Toyota Prado and a rental campervan, as the occupants had been seen trying to launch boats in the area. Members of the public told police that the men driving the campervan and the Toyota had been offering large amounts of cash in exchange for help to launch the boats.

In the High Court this week sentencing judge Justice Graham Lang said the maximum penalty for importing methamphetamine was life imprisonment, with a minimum non-parole period of 10 years.

When arrested Wan said he was recruited in Hong Kong to take part in the drug venture and arrived in New Zealand in February as part of a tour group. He became involved, he said, to pay off gambling debts that some of his family had.

Wan's counsel Ian Brookie said his client was acting as an interpreter for Mr Tsai, rather than being a major player in the operation. Mr Brookie said letters from Wan's teacher showed he was "feeble minded" especially when influenced by friends.

But Crown solicitor Mike Smith said Wan was more than a mere interpreter and was central to the operation because he was trusted to go on the boat from the beach to pick up the drugs.

"When we talk about how serious this offending is, this is the most serious in New Zealand's history, full stop," Mr Smith said.

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"It's an incredible amount of methamphetamine landed on our shores ... the significant impact meth is having on our society out there today is quite dramatic and devastating."

Justice Lang said while there was evidence of Wan acting as an interpreter for Mr Tsai - including when the pair paid $98,000 cash for a second boat to launch off the beach after the first was damaged - it was clear he was more than just an interpreter.

If Mr Tsai just wanted an interpreter he would want somebody with better English than Wan. Wan had also met the organisers of the venture in Hong Kong.

The judge said Wan was the only person trusted to go on the boat to pick up the methamphetamine and when the drug was landed, he left the beach as soon as possible to avoid any chance of being caught. However, there was no evidence that Wan helped finance the scheme or would benefit significantly from the profits.

He said a starting point for sentencing was life imprisonment, but taking into account Wan's circumstances a finite jail term was appropriate.

Justice Lang fixed a starting point of 32 years' imprisonment, then gave an end sentence of 23-years' jail after taking into account mitigating circumstances, including Wan's guilty plea.

He ordered that Wan serve a minimum nine years and six months' jail before he was eligible for parole. Wan will be deported when his sentence ends.