A missing livestock ship sailing from Napier to China with two New Zealand crew members on-board was subject to an inspection about its seaworthiness before departure, says Maritime NZ.

The Gulf Livestock 1, operated by Global Australasian Exports [AGE], has been missing now for more than 48 hours off the coast of Japan.

The vessel sent a distress message at 4.45am (NZT) on Wednesday, reporting engine failure.

Only two survivors have been found so far.

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Young Australian vet Lukas Orda has been confirmed as being on board.

The identities of the New Zealanders is still unknown, but it is understood they were stockmen who were based in Australia and worked on export ships.

The ship left port in Napier on August 14 with 5867 cattle and was heading to the Port of Jingtang in Tangshan, China, where it was expected about September 1.

Forty-three people were also aboard.

Livestock carrier Gulf Livestock 1 sent a distress signal at 4.45am NZT yesterday. Photo / Vessel Finder
Livestock carrier Gulf Livestock 1 sent a distress signal at 4.45am NZT yesterday. Photo / Vessel Finder

A second person was rescued from the water and was unconscious when discovered on Friday (NZ time). Their identity has not been revealed. That person has since died.

A Maritime NZ spokeswoman said Gulf Livestock 1 was checked before it left Napier and there was nothing to suggest the vessel was not in good condition when it left port.

An MPI spokeswoman confirmed the vessel was also subject to an inspection by an MPI Verification Services Authorised Person – a Port Veterinarian - prior to its departure from Napier.

However, the Port Veterinarian "focused primarily on disease risk and animal welfare", the spokeswoman said.

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A Napier Port spokesman said their thoughts are with the ship's crew members and their families following the "routine vessel call".

The ship's journey was expected to take about 17 days.

A former seafarer says the ship would have been a sitting duck when its engine failed in the middle of a typhoon.

Maritime Union national secretary Joe Fleetwood said gusting winds in the extreme weather event would have had a devastating impact on the ship.

"Container ships are high out of the water," Fleetwood said. "If you've got 140 knot winds blowing one way, all of a sudden you've got it hitting a massive wall of a building because that's what they're like.

"They're eight or nine storeys high and 100 metres long."

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The winds in Typhoon Maysak, a category 3 storm where gusts were expected to reach 200km/h, would have been strong enough to rock the ship, Fleetwood said.

"It only takes a little bit, just takes it over and all of a sudden it goes down the wrong side of the swell, and over it goes."

The ship activated a distress signal west of Amami Oshima Island in Japan in the early hours of Wednesday.

"The person that they've pulled out in the lifejacket would have been in emergency mode," Fleetwood said.

"He must have been out on deck and that was it. As the ship went over he's just jumped off and that's probably how he survived."

Japan's coastguard earlier said it rescued one crew member, Sareno Edvarodo, a 45-year-old chief officer from the Philippines, while searching for the ship.

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The Filipino chief officer said the ship was turned broadside toward all the strength of the waves and wind, and quickly capsized.

It was a guaranteed outcome for any disabled ship in severe storm, but especially so for ships with high freeboard and big superstructure.

When the ship capsized, crew were instructed to put on lifejackets. Edvarodo said he jumped into the water and did not see any other crew before he was rescued.

New Zealand-based cattle buyer for AGE, Dean Malcolm, called the sinking a rare and tragic event.

"It's really unfortunate and not common to be taken down by a typhoon. Once the boat started to go sideways, it's all over. It's terrible."

Malcolm said usually in severe storms or emergencies the crew of such a ship would strap themselves into a covered lifeboat and ride out the bad weather.

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Modern container ships have covered lifeboats which go down a chute into the water if necessary.

Malcolm said his ex-wife phoned him in tears when news of the capsize broke, relieved to find he wasn't on the ship.

"It's horrific. This is only the second time in history that I'm aware that a typhoon has taken down an export boat."

He said each cattle ship would have three or four stockmen and a qualified vet to maintain animal welfare during the voyage.

"They are highly qualified stockmen. They understand animals. They look after animals."

Yesterday a spokesman for the company said its primary concern was for the safety of the 43 people on board Gulf Livestock 1. They included 39 Filipino.

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"Four of those people are treasured friends and work colleagues. The remaining people on board are engaged by the ship's owner.

"We are in full contact with the families of our four colleagues and are offering them all the support we can.

"Our thoughts and prayers are also with the ship's officers, crew and other personnel and their families."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was providing consular assistance to the families of the two New Zealanders aboard.

Following the incident, the Ministry for Primary Industries temporarily suspended consideration of cattle livestock export applications, RNZ reported.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Winston Peters said a complete halt on cattle exports in the future was not the answer.

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"If it was not for livestock exports, this country would have no farming industry at all. The question is that we do in a way that's safe and humane in respect to the animals and the people who do it. In this case we seem to have had a perfect storm."

Malcolm echoed Peters' sentiment.

"The money for these export heifers is unprecedented. If you want to keep farming you don't have a lot of options sometimes."

Such a cow would sell for between $1800 and $2000 on the export market but domestically Malcolm said one would fetch only $900.

Rescuers on Friday found the bodies of cows washing ashore near where the ship went down.

A second typhoon was expected to hamper efforts.

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The Gulf Livestock 1 has a history of engine problems. During a voyage in July 2019, the livestock vessel drifted for 25 hours while undergoing repairs following an engine failure.

AGE was reprimanded by the Australian Department of Agriculture in July 2020. This was following alleged ear tag tampering on cows that were infected with infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR).

In May 2019, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority identified stability and navigation issues in the Gulf Livestock 1, delaying its departure on a journey from Broome to Indonesia.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor is expected to release the report from his review of the live export trade after the election.

However, SAFE campaigns manager Marianne Macdonald called on the minister to front up with the 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."

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There are two other live export shipments in the typhoon-affected area, including the Yangtze Harmony which left Port Taranaki on August 19 carrying 5700 cows.

This is the fourth time a typhoon has struck the region this year.

"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.

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

- Additional reporting by RNZ