Thousands of NZ cruise ship tourists going unchecked by MPI

The Minister whose job it is to keep foreign fruit flies out of the country says New Zealand's biosecurity systems are not operating well enough.

Newshub can reveal thousands of passengers have arrived on our shores on unaccredited cruise ships without being checked by Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) sniffer dogs. 

It comes as MPI begins an independent review of how cruise ships and air passengers are monitored for biosecurity risks. 

The Micronesia-registered Regatta arrived in Akaroa this morning carrying hundreds of passengers. It's an unaccredited ship, which means MPI does not have detailed information about the food it's carrying.

Official information obtained by Newshub shows it was one of 10 unapproved vessels that docked in New Zealand without checks from dogs last year.

Biosecurity Minister Damien O'Connor says the system isn't as good as it could be.

"They're not perfect. The fact we've had two fruit flies means there are areas where we can improve."

Other unaccredited vessels that docked without any sniffer dog scrutiny last year include the Astor, which flies under the flag of the Bahamas, the Asuka II from Japan, and the Viking Sun from Norway. 

A passenger on the Regatta, who travelled on it from southern California, said he didn't see any dogs this time either.  

"I don't remember seeing dogs in any other locations as far as entering and exiting the boat, or even at any of the ports."

Mr O'Connor says that's not acceptable.

"Yes, I have concerns about any vessels that are not being checked," he told Newshub. "We have to physically get dogs that are suitably trained to do the right thing.

"There has been a shortage and that's why we're training a whole lot more."

Last year, Newshub revealed 17 handlers left the Auckland detector dog team; amid claims of mismanagement and unworkable rosters.

It was also discovered that the green lane, for Australian and New Zealand passport holders without any food items to declare, isn't monitored by dogs from 2am to 5am. 

MPI Director General Ray Smith says a review by an Australian expert will look at such issues. 

"I've asked for a short review, a short sharp review to identify whether there are any gaps in our system that we need to plug - and if there are, I'll get on and do that."

The latest fruit fly is native to Tonga. It's not known how it got here, but one possible pathway is through unchecked food items.

Newshub has copies of internal emails which talk of a deal signed between Tonga and MPI in October, placing responsibility on Tonga, rather than our officials, to check some food items like the contents of umu boxes, which carry food cooked traditionally in the ground. 

The email states: "The idea is to move biosecurity screening offshore as much as possible... It also speeds up airport processes here as we won't need to inspect all food arriving with passengers from Tonga. We intend to extend this approach to other Pacific nations."

A senior border control official told Newshub: "We have had countless umu boxes from other islands [Samoa, Niue, Raro] that have the documents [a phytosanitary certificate], but in the box they have goods not listed on the certificate". 

The official says "without looking at the Tonga boxes, there is no way to know 100 percent what is in them".  

But Mr Smith has faith: "The information I have shows compliance rates are very close to 100 percent."

International arrangements like that will form part of the review.

According to many sources spoken to by Newshub, the shortage of dogs and handlers is a real problem.

The official information obtained also shows on some occasions, dogs have been pulled away from checking cruise ships so they can cover travellers at the airport. 

Mr Smith has been in the job of MPI Director General just four months, but really wants to take the dog issue seriously.

He says he wants to work with the Auckland dog team in the next three months to make the system as strong as it can be, and says that "staff numbers will be constantly reviewed".