The Ministry for Primary Industries said it will temporarily suspend consideration of cattle livestock exports after a ship carrying stock from New Zealand to China went missing off the coast of Japan.
The Gulf Livestock 1 has been missing after activating a distress signal during a typhoon west of Amani Oshima on Wednesday.
The Panamanian-registered ship was carrying 43 crew members, including two New Zealanders, 39 from the Philippines and two Australians.
"MPI wants to understand what happened on the sailing of the Gulf Livestock 1," the ministry said in a statement on Thursday, when it announced the temporary suspension.
The export of live cattle has been controversial, with animal rights groups long calling for it to be banned.
The practice is currently being reviewed by the Government, but last month Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said a decision had been held up due to COVID-19.
SAFE said the tragedy demonstrates the risks involved with the live cattle export trade.
"This is a real crisis, and our thoughts are with the families of the 43 crew who are missing with the ship. But questions remain, including why this trade is allowed to continue," said SAFE campaigns manager Marianne Macdonald.
She said it was likely that all cows on the vessel were pregnant. However, a spokesperson for MPI said according to the Animal Welfare Export Certificate for the shipment "no animal was pregnant on boarding".
"No export goes ahead until the vessel is thoroughly inspected by our vets for animal welfare needs," the spokesperson said.
MPI said the ship departed Napier on August 14 bound for Jingtang, China with an estimated journey of approximately 17 days. It had an Animal Welfare Export Certificate allowing for 5867 cattle.
On Thursday O'Connor said he was informed on Wednesday night that the Gulf Livestock 1 had issued a distress call and a Japanese coast guard search was underway.
According to a crew member rescued from the sea, the ship sank in rough weather.
Maritime New Zealand on Thursday confirmed the Japanese coast guard had rescued one person and said a number of rescue vessels and aircraft were searching in the area.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was providing assistance to the families of two New Zealanders on board the ship.