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Immigration decision a lifeline for fishing companies

Friday 25 September 2020

Cabinet’s decision this week to allow foreign fishing crew to enter New Zealand was a huge relief to companies that rely on that skilled labour to operate.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi announced on Tuesday that deepsea crew would have class exceptions for border entry, ending months of worry for the industry.

The scale of the problem was significant. Some $725 million annually significant.

Independent Fisheries’ three BATM vessels tied up at Lyttelton were unable to fish because their Russian and Ukrainian crew had flown home at the end of their visa periods and replacement crew were unable to enter.

This essentially put Independent out of business, cost tens of millions of dollars, and jeopardised the jobs of 450 land-based Kiwis in the wider industry.

Sealord was just a few weeks away from tying up a vessel as well.

Faafoi said; “Foreign deepsea fishing crew contribute significantly to New Zealand’s economy. The Government accepts that there are few additional Kiwis with the experience to safely work on these ships in the short term".

However, the concession came with caveats.

The fishing industry must move fast on its promises to the government to do more to encourage Kiwis into at-sea jobs, for example by way of a significant investment in training and education.

Whether this, with all the good will in the world, will be enough to encourage New Zealanders to take up sometimes onerous positions at sea remains to be seen.

Sealord is hugely relieved the Government has agreed to border exemptions that will allow foreign fishing crew to travel to New Zealand as critical workers but says they are yet to work through the details with MBIE.

For them, that means their two New Zealand-flagged Ukrainian vessels can start fishing around the middle of November, once all 160 crew are in New Zealand and they have completed 14 days quarantine, which will be paid for by Sealord.

Chief Operating Officer, Doug Paulin says they already have 50, of the 160 fishermen, in quarantine. They had been granted border exemptions to look after the two vessels while they were tied up but will now be able to go out fishing for six months before the next crew changeover.

Paulin says Sealord has always given substantial effort to recruiting Kiwis to fishing roles, however, additional initiatives will bolster those efforts.

Working at sea is inherently difficult, but not without its rewards.

Sea sickness, long periods away from families and strict drug and alcohol policies are among the challenges. However, the rewards are stability of employment, the opportunity to advance to highly paid roles, and the trip on/trip off rewards of working only six months of the year will be attractive for some.

With unemployment expected to reach a quarter of a million through the COVID-induced recession, we can only hope that those opportunities will become more attractive to New Zealanders.

The seafood industry is committed to preferentially employing New Zealanders and has put together a pathway to bring Kiwis into the sector. It will take time. Many of these sea-going roles are highly specialised but we believe it is a sound investment.

In the meantime, we are very pleased our vessels are again able to fish.

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