MV 'Onemato. Photo/Kalino Lātū (Kaniva Tonga News)

The Supreme Court is considering seizing a vessel involved in a charge of overloading.

‘Evona ‘Akau, stood indicted on one count of permitting a ship to proceed to sea carrying excess passengers.

The court was told that on January 9  at ‘Ohonua, ‘Eua, ‘Akau acted as Master of MV ‘Onemato, and permitted the ship to put to sea carrying 365 passengers.

The ship was licensed to carry 150 passengers in daylight.

Mr Justice Cato, presiding, said he was concerned by the safety of ferry’s operation and the way it was managed.

The vessel is owned by Eua Sea Transportation Council Cooperative Society Ltd.

He described the case as an important public issue for the people of Eua who depended on the ferry.

The company’s business license was cancelled on April 1 2019. The company had  reapplied for a license in the name of Eua Ferry Service Management Board the previous year.

The judge said he was considering forfeiture of the vessel to the Crown and would seek submissions on whether forfeiture was a mandatory provision arguments for and against the procedure.

He invited the Director for Public Prosecutions to appear for sentencing.

‘Akau took over as captain from Sione Pateta who left the ship at Eua following a disagreement with the manager.

The ‘Onemato left at 9.30pm, several hours later than scheduled due to mechanical faults and the need to find a suitably qualified first mate.

The judge said there had been no complaint about the way the ship was sailed or any aspect aside from the fact that it was carrying a much greater number of passengers than its Certificate of Survey allowed.

When the ship arrived in Nuku’alofa the Ports authority Officer, Mr Senituli Lavaka, saw that the ship was overloaded. He counted the passengers as they came off and noted 356 passengers.

The court was presented with a timesheet made out by  Semisi Napa’a who was the officer employed by the Marine department to oversee departures from Eua.

The document falsely claimed the ship was carrying 150 passengers and that it left at 2.45pm. It was also signed with a false name. ’Akau did not counter-sign the document as Master of the vessel.

Mr Justice Cato aid that he inferred that ’Akau did not sign the document because he know it was false. He said it ‘Akau’s responsibility to make sure the correct number of passengers was carried and rejected his claims that he could not see into the passenger area.

“ I reject his evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that he did not know that an excess of passengers were being unlawfully carried on the ship,” the judge said.

“Accordingly I find being the Master of the ship he permitted it to proceed to sea carrying an excessive number of passengers. I find him guilty of this offence, and he is convicted.”

The judge said he was concerned that information about the company appeared to be missing from the public register.

“The excess of passengers was so great on this voyage in waters acknowledged to be dangerous at times and at night that I am very concerned at the safety of this operation, and the management of it,” the judge said.

“The fact I know so little about the ownership and the circumstances of this offending concerns me as to the integrity and security of this operation. I considering forfeiture of the vessel to the Crown.”