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The Gulf Livestock 1 disaster tells the story of the Philippines and shipping

By Alan Weedon, Wednesday September 30, 2020 - 10:20 EST
ABC licensed image
The capsized ship has devastated the families of dozens of Filipino sailors lost at sea. - ABC licensed

Disaster struck on September 3.

The live export ship, the Gulf Livestock 1, was travelling north-west in the East China Sea .

The Panamanian-registered, 11,947-ton ship had sent a distress call from the west of Amami Oshima island in Japan as strong winds and heavy seas buffeted the vessel.

The ship was carrying almost 6,000 cattle and 43 crew, which included 39 Filipinos, two Australians and two New Zealanders.

To date, only two survivors and a body have been found by the Japanese Coast Guard. All are Filipino.

Rescue efforts have been stymied by incredibly harsh conditions, as the search area has been in the direct path of two typhoons: Maysak and .

Despite this, families of the remaining 40 missing crew haven't let go of the hope of finding their relatives alive — and now they've galvanised a virtual global search and rescue effort alongside that of Japan's.

And for the families of the 36 missing Filipinos, the disaster has significant consequences back home.

"Lindon is one of 100 grandchildren of my 93-year-old mother," Beth Pitogo-Malvar, aunt of one of the missing seafarers, Lindon Pitogo, said.

"She's crying all the time … all of us are affected."

'It's a hard life'

Liezel Pitogo, Lindon's wife, told the ABC of the horror that followed the discovery of the Gulf Livestock 1's capsizing.

"I couldn't believe it. One of our friends posted [on Facebook] and he sent me a message," Ms Pitogo said.

"It was totally unexpected because he didn't tell me that there was a problem. The last time we talked he said [conditions] were rough with big waves.

"We are feeling sad and hurt especially when a day passed by and we don't get any new updates about him."

She, along with their two children, live in Laguna, a province south-east of Manila.

They rely on her husband's remittances, which amount to about $1,444 a month, to keep her children at school and cover day-to-day expenses.

Her aunt-in-law, Ms Pitogo-Malvar, added that Mr Pitogo was also financially supporting his parents, as his father is unemployed due to polio.

"He is the only one working in the family. He has an 18-year-old studying at uni, and a four-year-old," she said.

It remains unclear if the ship's owner, Gulf Navigation Holdings, plans to provide financial assistance to the families of the missing sailors.

The Philippines' Overseas Worker Welfare Administration (OWWA) has given financial assistance to the two surviving Filipino crew amounting to 100,000 pesos ($2,914) each.

The ABC understands other affected families have been given some OWWA financial assistance, but in order to obtain funds, families have to apply for it.

Korpil, a Filipino shipping recruitment agency, told the ABC in a statement that it has also distributed financial assistance to each of the 36 families, but it did not share the amount for privacy reasons.

Father Paulo Prigol, the South-East Asian coordinator for Catholic maritime charity Stella Maris, said his team was offering some families "limited financial support counselling".

Ms Pitogo said an OWWA representative called to check in about her welfare days after the incident, but they did not offer financial aid at the time.

"In the Philippines, they've got big families," Ms Pitogo-Malvar said.

"University there is very expensive. Medicine is very expensive. Everything in the Philippines is very, very expensive."

"It's a hard life."

'From our village, we export garlic and labour'

Seafaring is a lucrative industry for Filipinos looking for social mobility, and it's one of the main reasons why the Philippines contributes the highest number of skilled seafarers in the world.

It's estimated that of the more than 1.65 million seafarers globally, Filipinos make up a quarter of the total population, at around 400,000.

It also provides the second-highest number of ship officers (responsible for the navigation and overall running of the ship), after China, according to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

Since the late 20th century, shipping has been one of the many industries fuelled by one of the Philippines' primary exports: people.

"It's common to hear from a neighbour in the Philippine countryside: 'From our village, we export garlic and labour'," said Gunnar Lamvik, a senior researcher at Norway's SINTEF, an independent research organisation.

Dr Lamvik, who wrote his PhD thesis on Filipino seafarers, said the country's development of an export-ready labour force has paid off since it began in the 1960s. This is especially true for mariners.

About 300,000 Filipino seafarers were estimated to have sent an average of $26,215 in remittances home last year, according to Father Prigol from Stella Maris. In total, this amounted to $9.1 billion.

Looking at remittances on the whole, Filipino overseas foreign workers contributed to 9.3 per cent of the country's total GDP in 2019, according to figures from the World Bank.

Apart from giving their families more access to material goods, these remittances often contribute to their social mobility prospects.

"When seafarers come back to their hometowns, they're at least supposed to appear successful, and I've met many [Filipino] seafarers who go back with pockets full of small [US] dollar bills," Dr Lamvik said.

"But of course, it's also channelled to sponsoring [relatives'] education … usually it's the eldest paying for the youngest."

Concerns about vessel predated incident

The and was converted into a live export ship in 2012.

While the vessel has been referred to under a number of different guises, it has been known as the Gulf Livestock 1 since March 2019.

Since May last year, the vessel had recorded 25 official safety deficiencies, according to shipping safety website Equasis.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) identified the bulk of its deficiencies in May 2019, which prevented it from leaving Broome.

AMSA found that the on-board safety management system failed to provide for "operational safety of navigation and maintenance of ship and equipment".

It also found some crew were not properly trained on how to use its electronic navigation system, and that the system was not updated with the latest navigational hazards, and consequently was not being used.

While those deficiencies were eventually rectified, Indonesian authorities in December 2019 identified seven further deficiencies, some of which included the vessel's propulsion, emergency, and gauge systems.

Records show the vessel was anchored in Indonesia for at least another four months following the Indonesian investigation.

A representative of one of the crew, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to the ABC out of fear of employer reprisals, said sailors were left stranded on the vessel without pay during this period while parts were being sourced.

They also alleged that Filipino sailors were paid about $494 less than other nationals aboard at the time.

"They didn't have money on the ship, [and] they told us they weren't getting fed properly," the representative said.

"They wanted to keep [their complaints] quiet because obviously they didn't want to lose their job."

Gulf Navigation Holdings, a Dubai-based shipping company that lists the Gulf Livestock 1 as part of its fleet, did not reply to the ABC's repeated requests for its response to these allegations.

Sailors lost in a search area 'the size of California'

Shawn Alladio, founder of K38 Water Rescue and coordinator of the private search, said the search area for the missing crew spans an area equivalent to the "size of California".

This amounts to more than 400 square kilometres, an area 1.8 times bigger than the size of Victoria.

This is because of the incredibly large "drift scenarios", which have been exacerbated by the two typhoons, that may have pushed survivors far from Japan and into the Pacific Ocean's vast expanse.

The waters off the south of Japan sit on the Central Kuroshio Current, one of the currents off the country's eastern coast that feeds into the colossal Northern Pacific Gyre, which sends water from East Asia to the US West Coast.

"We believe that they're either going north-north-east toward the north tracking route where all the ships are, which will take them along the Aleutians and drop them down to the west coast of America," Ms Alladio said.

Or, she said other survivors may have been pushed into eddies (swirling ocean currents) off of Japan's east coast, where some may have "kicked them to Hawaii".

So far, volunteer searchers have been looking for the missing virtually amid the coronavirus pandemic, scrawling through dense satellite imagery in and around the immediate search zone.

But this is not going to be a simple or quick task.

"There are over 4,000 islands, and we've targeted about 30 of them," Ms Alladio said.

For now, volunteers are looking for survivors who may have washed up on one of the islands in the search area, or traces of debris that could give searchers clues as to where they may have drifted.

Based on the life rafts installed on the ship, Ms Alladio said the missing crew had supplies to last 30 days. The supplies run out on Saturday, but the life rafts themselves can be used for longer.

As the days without their loved ones wear on, and the prospects of finding the sailors alive get slimmer, relatives are calling out for anyone to help.

"Whoever's reading this story, if you have any information about [their] whereabouts, please let us know," Ms Pitogo said.

"To those people who have connections …  help us intensify the search and rescue."


© ABC 2020

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