Livestock Carrier Ordered Auctioned as Owner Abandons Ship and Crew
The Australian Federal Court is preparing to auction off the livestock carrier Yangtze Fortune which it believes has been abandoned by its owners while the International Transport Workers’ Federation is highlighting the ship as the latest example of owners mistreating their crews. The ITF is saying that it believes the livestock sector is in trouble with an increasing number of complaints and insolvencies.
Built in 2005 in China as a containership, the vessel has a checkered history having at least five different names and a long list of managers and registered owners. The 4,800 dwt ship operated carrying livestock between Australia and China with a crew of approximately 30. During its most recent trip, it was expected to load 5,200 head of cattle for transport to China.
The vessel has a long list of deficiencies identified during port state inspections dating back to 2013. However, it avoided detentions for the most part except in Australia briefly in 2020 and that was regarding its operating plan as opposed to structural issues. In July 2022, an initial inspection in Ningbo, China however found issues with the stowage of rescue boats and the launching arrangements for survival craft.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority reports the vessel arrived at Portland near Melbourne in southern Australia on September 28 and remained at anchor. AMSA reports it has been monitoring the situation with the vessel which is registered in Liberia paying attention to the crew welfare and is now working with the Admiralty Marshall to ensure the crew welfare and entitlements are maintained now that the vessel is in the hands of the court.
The courts became involved when Australian Global Exports Pty issued a writ against the ship in Western Australia with claims of damages of US$2.3 million plus A$1 million for breach of a September booking. Dan-Bunkering moved to have the ship arrested for non-payment of bills and subsequently Singapore ship chandlers also filed against the ship.
The court reports that the vessel is deteriorating while no maintenance and it has not received a reply from the owners. The Marshall ordered the ship moved to the dock and later paid for the purchase of fuel because the owners had not supplied fuel. Further, the Marshal reports that the vessel undertook a temporary repair for the crack in its hull, which appears to be holding at this time.
Saying that the vessel is all but abandoned by the registered owners Soar Harmony Shipping of China, the judge concluded in a December 20 hearing, “Clearly, the vultures are circling. I see little to no prospect that the judicial sale of the vessel can be avoided.” He noted that neither the shipowner nor any bareboat charterer or mortgagee has intervened to maintain the vessel. The court highlights that the clock is ticking as the Marshall reports from documentation provided by the master that it appears that the vessel’s marine hull and machinery insurance is set to expire on December 31, 2022. If that occurs, the judge said all claimants’ security will be imperiled.
The International Labor Organization reports that it has also received an abandonment notice for the crew. The court reports that there are 36 crewmembers aboard but that it could be reduced to 16. The crew however is unwilling to leave the ship until they are paid their back wages.
According to inspectors from the ITF that boarded the ship and interviewed the crew who are Philippine nationals, shipboard documentation shows the crew received only one-third of its wages in October. Several of the crew members have been aboard the ship for eight or nine months. The ITF reports it is providing support for the crew as their provisions run low but it is concerned because collectively the crew is owed a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid wages. The crew can not leave the ship because they would forfeit their claims but faces few prospects of recovering all of their back pay.
The ITF reports that AMSA and the court are working together for the crew. The judge concluded after the December 20 hearing that “In the circumstances, I am satisfied that there should be orders for the sale of the vessel. I see no other available course,” but ITF is concerned that the monies raised are unlikely to cover all the owner’s debt meaning the crew might still not get paid. They are also involving the flag state for its obligations to the crew and to provide for reparation if necessary.
The ITF Australian Inspectorate Coordinator, Ian Bray, however, said that he sees a broader problem in the livestock shipping industry. “We believe there is an epidemic of borderline insolvency amongst the operators of these livestock ships as they repeatedly feature among the worst cases in our inspections around Australia and internationally,” said Bray. The sector is the frequent target of activists that want the livestock trade ended and the maritime unions who also highlight the working conditions aboard the ships.
For now, the crew of the Yangtze Fortune remains in limbo. The court has directed the Marshall to proceed with the sale once the plaintiffs file the necessary paperwork.