Farmer with stock onboard missing ship defends live cattle exports

A farmer who had stock onboard the ship that went missing off the coast of Japan in a typhoon is defending live cattle exports.

The Gulf Livestock 1 went missing west of Amani Oshima in Japan. The ship activated a distress signal in rough weather on Wednesday and has not been seen since.

The Panamanian-registered ship was carrying 43 crew members, including two New Zealanders, 39 from the Philippines and two Australians.

On Thursday a Filipino crew member was plucked from the sea by the Japan Coastguard. He told rescuers the ship capsized and sank.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) said the vessel left Napier on August 14 bound for Jingtang, China, with 5867 cattle onboard.

The tragedy has raised concerns once again over the live cattle export trade.

Animal rights groups have long called for a ban on such a trade, saying such journeys are cruel.

But one farmer who had stock on the Gulf Livestock 1 is defending the practice. He says he never would have sent his animals on the ship if he didn't think they would be well cared for.

"I certainly wouldn't send them for live ship export if I wasn't happy with the standards that are used," the man, identified only as Geoff, told Leah Panapa on Magic Talk on Thursday evening.

"They get trained into feedlot situations and they have plenty of space and they travel in very good conditions," he said.

"This is a tragic accident and we should see it for what it actually is. To spin this as an animal cruelty thing I think is a bad twist, from what is a tragic accident, a ship sailing into a typhoon."

Animals rights group SAFE on Thursday said the sinking demonstrated the risks of the live animal export trade.

"These cows should never have been at sea," said SAFE campaigns manager Marianne Macdonald.

"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."

Macdonald 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 added.

Last month, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said all animals exported from New Zealander were done so for breeding purposes, and were not for slaughter. 

Geoff, the farmer, said he had around 40 stock onboard and was reassured of the standard of care they would receive. 

"I've actually done the research, I've looked at how they convert them to feedline, how they feed them, how they're housed, what room they've got and the on-call vets - and I can tell you that these animals are treated well," he said.

"We're farmers and we're farmers because we want to look after our animals and we want to do the best for them."

Animal rights groups have also raised concerns about how the animals are treated when they arrive in their destination countries. But Geoff said it didn't make sense to mistreat the animals as they were a "substantial investment".

"The reality is the animals are well cared for because they've spent a lot of money to develop them and to look after them because they want long-term to grow the numbers on the ground."

MPI announced on Thursday it had temporarily suspended consideration of cattle livestock exports following the incident, saying it "wants to understand what happened on the sailing of the Gulf Livestock 1".

Last year a Government review into the practice was undertaken, but last month O'Connor said a decision had been delayed due to COVID-19.