One person rescued, search for missing livestock carrier with two New Zealanders onboard continues

One person has been rescued from a livestock carrier missing off the coast of Japan.

A number of vessels were at the scene, Maritime New Zealand said on Thursday.

"Rescue Co-ordination Centre received an update from Japanese Coastguard at about 12.15pm - one person has been rescued, and four vessels are on the scene and six aircraft," Maritime New Zealand said. 

Earlier on Thursday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said it was providing assistance to the families of two New Zealanders onboard the Gulf Livestock 1, which was reported missing off the coast of Japan during a typhoon.

The ship activated a distress signal 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, Japanese broadcaster NHK reported.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said he was informed on Wednesday night that the ship had issued a distress call and a Japanese coast guard search was underway.

"I very much hope all the crew on board are safe," O'Connor said on Thursday. 

"My thoughts are with their families, this will be a very difficult time for them as the search continues."

O'Connor said officials from the Ministry for Primary Industries were working closely with MFAT, which was the lead agency, and he was "awaiting an update on the situation".

Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters said MFAT and the New Zealand embassy in Tokyo were working with local authorities following the incident.

"We are providing consular assistance to families of New Zealanders involved, and our thoughts are with them," Peters said in a statement.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (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.

No MPI staff were onboard the ship.

According to NHK, the Japanese coast guard said it had spotted a person adrift in the sea wearing a life jacket as well as an object that looked like a lifeboat during its search for the vessel.

Splash247, a media outlet covering ships, reports that aerial searches and four coastguard vessels have not been able to locate the ship and all communication has been lost.

The MaritimeTraffic tracking service says the ship could have been hit by high waves and strong winds up to 130km/h as a result of Typhoon Maysak barrelling through the region. 

"The search for the livestock carrier in load began as concern for the safety of 43 crew onboard rises," MarineTraffic says.

"The URUMA patrol vessel is now sailing close to the carrier’s last reported position, reporting its destination as 'Avoid Typhoon'."

The Japan Meteorological Agency has warned the typhoon could cause a "major disaster". 

Animal rights group SAFE said on Thursday the tragedy demonstrates the risks involved in the live 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 Certficate 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.

Gulf Livestock 1, built in 2002, is part of the Gulf Navigation Holding fleet and sails under a Panama flag.