Livestock carrier Yangtze Fortune's crew members have been stuck on Victoria's coast for months.

Sixteen Filipino crew members of an abandoned ship face an uncertain future after spending months in limbo off the south-west coast of Victoria. The livestock carrier known as the YANGTZE FORTUNE failed to deliver cattle to China after a crack was discovered it its hull.The Liberian-flagged ship has been
anchored in Portland, in Victoria's south-west, since September 28 last year. It is now the subject of an Australian Federal Court order in a case maritime experts have described as "unusual and exceptional".A December 2022 judgement by the Federal Court of Australia found the vessel's Chinese owners had abandoned the ship and its crew amid mounting debt owed to creditors. With no food or fuel being provided by its owners, the ship is now under the care of a Federal Court Admiralty Marshal, responsible for vessels after court orders.In late December, court documents revealed the stranded crew members had been onboard for at least three months with wages unpaid for at least six weeks.

Groups such as the International Transport Workers' Union (ITF), The Seafarers Mission to Portland and the local Salvation Army have provided support for the crew, including a party for the men on Christmas Day. ITF assistant Australia coordinator Matt Purcell said the crew members were in "reasonable spirits" and were occasionally able to leave the ship to visit Portland. "[But] we don't know when they're going home, and that must create an awful amount of pressure and stress," he said. Their ship was proving an obstacle for other ships wanting to dock, Mr Purcell said. The court has since ordered for the vessel to be sold, with the ship set to be auctioned off on February 10 in a bid to recover debts.

Owed wages piling up
The crew was recently reduced from 36 – what's called "safe manning" – with the Australian government allowing 19 of the sailors to fly home. Another man is believed to have been allowed to leave earlier.In a statement, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said international conventions required the vessel to be "adequately resourced to relocate if the need arises, or to respond to emergency situations". "International guidelines require that both the vessel's flag state and insurers act in cases of abandonment to ensure the continued welfare of the crew onboard," an AMSA spokesperson said.The ITF claimed the group of 36 sailors were collectively owed more than $250,000, with wages continuing to accrue.ITF Australian Inspectorate coordinator Ian Bray alleged a union investigation found some workers' salaries had been paid in the past using their leave entitlements and other funds.

Sailors smile and give thumbs up in front of a bus
"It's not only the wages that are owed, it's now the back payment of all of the money," Mr Bray claimed"We allege [it] has unethically, morally and probably illegally been taken from their funds to pay them and that needs to be replaced as well. Mr Purcell claimed the Yangtze Fortune's insurance was also due to end on January 31. "When the insurance runs out, the Port of Portland and any other port for that matter, won't want to take them alongside because of the issues with non-insurance," he said."If there's an accident or something happens to the berth, then they're not covered." "You can't have a vessel just floating around out in the ocean when nobody can pay the bills," Mr Bray said. "I would imagine AMSA would have a view that it would go to anchor and remain at anchor until these issues get resolved. That would be the pragmatic approach to it."Former seafarer June Villadolid has been working with the Yangtze Fortune's crew and said it was likely the sailors have been told not to speak publicly about their situation. "As an ex-seafarer, we are instructed by the office or the captain that talking to media is not permitted," he said. "If the company or the agency find out that you're talking to the media or you're talking to any of the authorities, you'll be blacklisted. "Instead of getting another contract, they'll say, 'oh you're talking, you're squealing' they'll find another agency then."

Ship abondment on the rise
Mr Bray said the livestock industry has been in a downward spiral for years, starting with government bans on live trade exports due to concerns around cruelty, as well as changing international demand. ANU Professor of International Law Don Rothwell said the COVID-19 pandemic had also "wreaked havoc" on the welfare of international crews on merchant and crew ships around the world. He said "crew stuck on ships either because of COVID or commercial issues" had long been an issue in the industry. The ITF has reported a spike in abandonment cases worldwide. Mr Bray said while it was not a common occurrence in Australia, there were "hotspots around the globe whereby abandonment seems to be on the rise". The YANGTZE FORTUNE itself was reported in July 2018 for having more than the allowable amount of animal fatalities on board during a 20-day voyage from Portland to Ningbo, China. Of 2,192 cattle, 33 died, exceeding the recommended rate of 1 per cent for voyages longer than 10 days."We're starting to see more and more of these companies facing the financial pressures ... I think the industry itself is in real hardship," Mr Bray said."It's not only the livestock that get abused, we're finding now the seafarers do too when things don't go right and these companies can't remain solvent."

Sister ship likened to floating prison
Thousands of kilometres away in Singaporean waters, the crew of the vessel's sister ship, the Yangtze Harmony, has been unable to disembark, prompting the ITF to liken it to a floating prison. The ship was arrested in Singapore in October after its owners failed to pay its debts. When the Yangtze Fortune was tied up in Portland, they could have shore leave, you know, they were in touch with the community, the community put on the Christmas dinner," Mr Bray said."In Singapore, they're not allowed to shore and they're not allowed to receive visitors unless there's permission by the authorities." "So the crew there is in the true sense of the word 'completely abandoned'."

Crew often "low priority " in resolving debts
The ITF said the vessel would likely be put to auction, with the sale covering operational costs owed to the Admiralty Marshal and any debt owed to creditors. Professor Rothwell said it would be difficult to decipher who was owed what, with "charterers, owners and insurers", as well as "secured and unsecured creditors" all in the mix. "Often in these cases the crew have relatively low priority," he said."There's a remote possibility the ship is abandoned and de-crewed ... then the most obvious scenario is the crew is put onto a plane home." Professor Rothwell said depending on who bought the ship, it was possible the crew may continue work on the Yangtze Fortune under new owners. "If the vessel doesn't get sold for the overall debt, then it becomes a case of the Admiralty Marshal first and everybody else just gets a percentage," Mr Bray said.The ABC has attempted to contact the owners of the Yangtze Fortune through their legal representatives, and has contacted the vessel’s insurer. Both parties have declined to comment.

Source : ABCNews