By ABC PNG correspondent Liam Cochrane
| The abandoned fishing boat Liao is believed to have been set on fire by the crew after it ran aground (Supplied) |
Three human bodies reportedly left in the freezer of an abandoned fishing vessel in Papua New Guinea may have been removed and replaced with three metre-long tuna, according to a journalist who accompanied police to the site.The fishing vessel was abandoned on a remote island in the far east of PNG's waters in early December and locals reported seeing three corpses "of Asian appearance" inside a freezer.
But when police and government officials travelled to the site this week, they found three huge tuna on trays in the freezer, which had been damaged by fire.
"The fish that were there looked like [they] had just recently been burned - you could still see blood on the fish," said Stephanie Elizah, a senior journalist working with the Autonomous Government of Bougainville's media bureau, who was part of the assessment trip.
"The information doesn't add up," she said.
"The young kid that went into the freezer area [initially], he noticed an ankle, it was decayed but it was still in the shape of a foot and was wrapped in black wrapper.
"You're talking about a community that [has been] eating fish all their lives and they know the difference between a fish and a human body."
It is unclear if the initial reports of human bodies were incorrect or if the corpses had been removed and replaced with the tuna.
"No one has come up and said whether they burnt the ship or they maybe retrieved the corpses and buried [them] somewhere," Elizah said.
|Photo: The Chinese-flagged Liao Yuan Yu 68 ran aground at Paona Island in Bougainville in December (Supplied)|
The ship has been identified as the 48-metre Chinese-flagged Liao Yuan Yu 68.
The western and central pacific fisheries commission website lists the Liao Yuan Yu 68 as a long-line tuna ship belonging to Liaoning Goldenstar Ocean Fishing Co. and licensed until March 2016.
However, Tumor Boise of the national fisheries authority told the Post-Courier newspaper the vessel was unregistered and had been engaged in illegal fishing.
Elizah said PNG police believed the ship made a distress call in June 2014 while in French Polynesian waters, saying there was an electrical fire on board.
It is not clear how it ended up at Paona Island, an uninhabited wildlife reserve that is part of the Nuguria group of atolls, more than 200 kilometres north of Bougainville.
|An assessment team was sent to investigate the boat after locals reported discovering three bodies in its freezer (Supplied)|
"It was deliberately rammed into the reef, it showed that the ship was manned when it ran into the reef," she said.
She said residents of nearby islands had salvaged at least 19 200-litre drums of fuel from ship, but there are concerns fuel could leak from a separate compartment.
Elizah said the ship was mostly stripped of belongings and equipment, asides from bags of rice, instant noodles and bottles of water with Hawaiian labels.